South Africa is home to about 153 000 sex workers

Johannesburg – First of its kind research released on Monday shows that South Africa is home to about 153 000 sex workers, as a new plan aims to decriminalise one of the world’s oldest professions.

Commissioned by the South African National Aids Council (Sanac), the research is said to be the most accurate of its kind to date.

It found that the country is home to about 153 000 sex workers, of whom 8 000 are men.

Led by the Sex Workers’ Education and Advocacy Task Force (Sweat), the study also found that about 4 percent of all sex workers are transgender, or sex workers who may be anatomically male but who identify as women.

The study found that sex was for sale in a wide range of places, including brothels, at least one adult store and via local internet sex sites.

The research is aimed at helping Sanac roll out the country’s first national HIV plan for sex workers. Unveiled on Monday, the plan aims to provide better prevention and care services for sexually transmitted infections, HIV and tuberculosis among sex workers and their families.

It also aims to push for the decriminalisation of the world’s oldest profession.

“Sex work is criminalised and that has made us more vulnerable,” said Kholi Buthelezi, national co-ordinator for the sex worker movement Sisonke. “Police rape us, and if we are arrested, they will need sexual favours in order for us to be released.”

Police were not the only threat as many clients refused to use condoms, she added.

“I have heard a sex worker say ‘I told this handsome client I didn’t want to use a condom’,” she said. “What I have heard is that clients don’t want to use condoms.”

A web of vulnerabilities have pushed HIV prevalence among sex workers to more than 60 percent, according to Sanac’s Fareed Abdullah.

What endangers sex workers is also endangering South Africa, according to a July 2014 study published in the international medical journal The Lancet that linked at least 6 percent of all new HIV infections in nationwide sex work.

If South Africa moved to decriminalise sex work, it could look at regulating the profession and create a safer working environment, argue advocates like Buthelezi.

But the fight for decriminalisation is likely to be a long one for sex workers.

Deputy Justice and Constitutional Development Minister John Jeffery said the Law Reform Commission was currently nearing the end of its long-running review of legislation criminalising sex work.

The commission may then submit written recommendations to amend the law to the justice and constitutional development minister.

The minister could then move to table these before the cabinet and then Parliament.

Changing the law would need strong public support, Jeffery cautions.

“We are on the one hand a very conservative country,” he said. If decriminalisation is to go through, it’s important that it has the majority of support from the people of South Africa.”

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