With only six months until South Africa hosts the 2010 FIFA World Cup, the nettlesome question of how to deal with sex workers looms.
"There are actually almost no sex work programmes in place at the moment," said Marlise Richter, a sex work researcher and member of the South African National AIDS Council (SANAC), at a recent consultation in Cape Town on HIV, sex work and the World Cup.
"If we look at healthcare-specific programmes [for sex workers], there’s very little, and this is what we should be doing in terms of the National Strategic Plan [on AIDS]."
Public health and human rights experts fear a potential disaster in the combination of a criminalized sex trade, one of the world’s highest HIV infection rates, and the arrival of an expected 450,000 soccer fans.
The consultation, co-sponsored by the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) and SANAC, brought together civil society, government, and other key players to discuss the potential impact of the World Cup on the local population, with a particular focus on developing strategies to address HIV risk in the context of sex work.
Among the draft recommendations that emerged from the two-day meeting were the need for human rights training, public health messages specific to sex work, a government directive to end police harassment of sex workers, and a moratorium on arrests of sex workers during the event. The point was also made that safer sex campaigns should target not only sex workers, but also their clients, non-paying partners, and the general public.
The German "Fair Play" campaign, which ran during the 2006 World Cup, was cited as a good example because it increased condom distribution and started targeting sex workers and their clients with messages about safe sex more than a year before the kick-off.
According to the recommendations, the South African campaign should include the distribution of male and female condoms packaged with a soccer logo and lubricant. Coasters printed with the message: "Don’t leave this bar without picking up a condom", could also be placed in bars and pubs where soccer will be watched.
Legal sex means safer sex
Vivienne Lalu, an Advocacy Coordinator at SWEAT, warned that giving away condoms was only part of the answer. "You can throw 20 million condoms at sex workers and do all the safer sex workshops, but if sex workers are continuously denied their human rights, you’re never going to be able to implement that information."
In South Africa, both the selling and buying of sex is criminalised and, according to Lalu, the Cape Town police have recently formed a vice squad that specifically targets sex workers; the arrest and harassment of sex workers – almost always without a charge or court hearing – has been increasing since October.
"They say they’re trying to keep the streets clean; that sex workers are dirty. We’re not sure if it’s the pressure of 2010 or something else, but [the police] are doing everything in their power to discredit sex workers," said Mickey, a representative from Sisonke, the South African Network of Sex Workers.
"We haven’t done any specific planning around 2010 at this stage," Lalu said. "We will more than likely still be working under a criminalized system, and formulating interventions with a target audience that is criminalised faces enormous challenges."
Richter noted that legalizing sex work would make it easier for sex workers to protect themselves and their clients from HIV. "In a context where sex work is legal and seen as legitimate work, where we have a labour law framework in place, it will mean that sex work will be safer, and that the tourists and clients who come will be safer," she said.
The decriminalization of sex work is recommended in South Africa’s HIV and AIDS and STI National Strategic Plan (2007-2011), and supported by both SANAC and SWEAT, but the process of changing the law remains under the South African Law Reform Commission, which began reviewing the Sexual Offences Act seven years ago.
An initial bill for parliamentary debate is not expected to be ready until March 2010, and any changes in legislation would not be passed before 2011. In the meantime, advocates of decriminalization have called for a moratorium on arrests of sex workers during the World Cup.
The recommendations from the consultation urged government to issue a directive to police on the harassment of sex workers, stating that there would be no arrests for loitering during the World Cup period; that police will attend workshops sensitizing them on sex worker issues; and that sex workers will have access to free, quality, and respectful healthcare.
In a press release issued on 7 December, SWEAT stated: "With the influx of an estimated 450,000 visitors to the country, and with high rates of HIV within our country, it is critical that our laws create an environment that enables the best possible public health outcomes to be achieved."