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Selling sex has been illegal in South Africa since at least the early s and buying sex was criminalised in The criminalisation of sex work has not deterred people from selling sex to make a living. Criminalisation has, however, made sex work less safe. Most sex workers in South Africa are poor, black, and female, and sell sex primarily in order to support their children, as well as other dependents.
This report attempts to represent some of the fear, emotional pain, and frustration that South African sex workers experience because the work they do to try to ensure a better life for their children is criminalised. The report calls for law reforms including the decriminalisation of sex work in South Africa and encourages the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development to take up this task now with seriousness and urgency after years of debate on the issue.
Rofhiwa Mlilo a pseudonym is a year-old sex worker and a single mother of two children. Almost none of the 46 women interviewed for this report matriculated from school; Rofhiwa Mlilo did not go at all. She sees sex work as one of the very few options available to earn an income to keep a roof over the heads of her children, for her, preferable to backbreaking farm work that brings in less money.
Rofhiwa Mlilo described the sometimes dangerous contradictions inherent in selling sex in South Africa: her relationship with the police is characterized by arbitrary arrests, lack of due process, and abusive policing practices. Interviews were conducted with female sex workers, including three transgender women, in ten sites in three provinces. Around 40 government and nongovernmental experts in health, law, and provision of services for sex workers and were also interviewed.
The report documents how the criminalisation of sex work fuels human rights violations against sex workers, including by police officers, and undermines their right to health. The report provides recommendations to reform the legal system to provide protection for sex workers.