Tag Archives: South Africa


The concept of ‘human dignity’ sits at the heart of international human rights law and a growing number of national constitutions and yet its meaning is heavily contested and contingent. I aim to supplement the theoretical literature on dignity by providing an empirical study of how the concept is used in the specific context of legal discourse on sex work. I will analyse jurisprudence in which commercial sex was declared as incompatible with human dignity, focussing on the South African Constitutional Court case of S v Jordan and the Indian Supreme Court case of Budhadev Karmaskar v State of West Bengal. I will consider how these courts conceptualise dignity and argue that their conclusions on the undignified nature of sex work are predicated on particular sexual norms that privilege emotional and relational intimacy. In light of the stigma faced by sex workers I will explore how a discourse, proclaiming sex work as beneath human dignity, may impact on the way that sex workers are perceived and represented culturally, arguing that it reinforces stigma. I will go on to examine how sex workers subvert the notion that commercial sex is undignified, and resist stigma, by campaigning for the right to sell sex with dignity. I will demonstrate that an alternative legal approach to dignity and sex work is possible, where the two are not considered as inherently incompatible, concluding with thoughts on the risks and benefits of using ‘dignity talk’ in activism and campaigns for sex work law reform.



This article explores the movement to decriminalize sex work in the Gauteng province of Johannesburg from 1994 to 2002. In particular, I examine the actions and statements of the provincial Ministry of Safety and Security and other ministries in the decision to de facto decriminalize prostitution using the international language of human rights. This article illustrates that the movement to decriminalize sex work in the postapartheid period is not a sharp departure from the past. Rather, as early as the 1970s there were minority contingents that advocated a legalization or decriminalization of sex work, arguing for the public health or policy benefits that would follow. What is new in the postapartheid period is the justification for decriminalization, which now is based on the international language of human rights. Also new in the postapartheid period is the inclusion in the debate of voices that were not heard during apartheid, when the media was dominated by white South Africans. There is now a counterdiscourse opposing decriminalization, based on religion and on the argument that sex work is “un-African.”


The research for this article was conducted in the greater Johannesburg area of South Africa in 1996 ( july-September) and from September 1997 to September 1999. Gauteng was chosen as a site for research because of an effort to decriminalize sex work led by the department of Safety and security (Gauteng province) in the Johannesburg area. Some of the questions posed by this article include the following: To what extent was the movement or effort to decriminalize prostitution in the 1990s a shift and departure from the control of sexuality during the apartheid period? What factors account for the movement to decriminalize sex work? How does South Africa’s racial diversity figure in the movement, and how did it affect previous discourse on this topic?1

To understand the origins and (at least so far) the limited success of the decriminalization movement, one has to examine the nature of sex work in apartheid South Africa and the changes that have taken place in the postapartheid era. Before the ending of apartheid, most advocates for legalization or decriminalization of prostitution had focused on the public health benefits of an increased tolerance and leniency. A history of tolerance toward prostitution in the Cape Colony and the ZAR (Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek) also provided an historical precedent for the postapartheid movement. Significantly, most of the voices of liberalization in the apartheid era were white; black South Africans had neither the power, nor sufficient access to public media and airwaves, to make their positions known. …

Full article available here

Résumé: Cet article examine le mouvement de dépénalisation de l’industrie du sexe dans la province de Gauteng, Johannesburg, de 1994 à 2002. Nous examinons en particulier les actes et les déclarations du ministère de la sûreté et de la sécurité et d’autres ministères de cette province à la lumière de la décision de dépénaliser de facto la prostitution en invoquant le langage international des droits de l’homme. Cet article montre que ce mouvement de dépénalisation de l’industrie du sexe pendant la période postapartheid ne constitue pas un tournant radical par rapport au passé. Au contraire, dè;s les années 1970, il existait des contingents minoritaires qui militaient pour une légalisation ou une dépénalisation de l’industrie du sexe, invoquant les avantages en matière de santé publique et de politique qui ne manqueraient pas de s’ensuivre. Ce qui est nouveau dans la période postapartheid est la justification citée pour la dépénalisation, qui se base désormais sur le langage international des droits de l’homme. Une autre nouveauté de la période postapartheid est l’inclusion dans ce débat de voix qui n’avaient pas pu être entendues pendant l’apartheid, les média étant alors dominés par les africains du sud blancs. Il existe aujourd’hui un contre-discours s’opposant à la dépénalisation. Ce discours s’appuie sur la religion ainsi que sur l’argument que le travail de l’industrie du sexe est “contraire à l’esprit africain.”

Chi Mgbako and Laura A. Smith, Sex Work and Human Rights in Africa, 33 Fordham Int’l L.J. 1178 (2011). 
Available at:


This Article serves as the first law review essay to engage the feminist debates regarding sex work and human rights in the African context. This Article surveys “antiprostitution” and “pro-sex-worker” feminist arguments and activities in the sub-Saharan Africa; explores the debate surrounding the legal frameworks of legalization, decriminalization, prohibition, and abolition of prostitution in a number of African countries including Senegal, where prostitution is legal and regulated, and South Africa where prostitution remains illegal despite civil society advocacy for decriminalization; and calls for the empowerment of African sex workers by arguing for a human rights-based transformation in African governments’ legal and policy posture towards sex work. Part I of this Article explores both the feminist arguments against prostitution and in favor of sex workers’ rights. Part II traces the development of the distinction between forced and unforced prostitution in international law and argues that the international human rights system creates a foundation for the realization of sex workers’ rights in Africa. Part III explores the debates regarding the criminalization of prostitution in a number of African countries and includes case studies from Senegal and South Africa.

Scorgie, F. Vasey, K. Chersich, M. Nakato, D. Akoth, D. O. Netshivhambe, M. Chakuvinga, P. Nkomo, P. Phelister Abdalla, P. Sibanda, S.(2013) Human rights abuses and collective resilience among sex workers in four African countries: a qualitative study BMC International Health and Human Rights 9:33.  



Sex work is a criminal offence, virtually throughout Africa. This criminalisation and the intense stigma attached to the profession shapes interactions between sex workers and their clients, family, fellow community members, and societal structures such as the police and social services.


We explore the impact of violence and related human rights abuses on the lives of sex workers, and how they have responded to these conditions, as individuals and within small collectives. These analyses are based on data from 55 in-depth interviews and 12 focus group discussions with female, male and transgender sex workers in Kenya, South Africa, Uganda and Zimbabwe. Data were collected by sex worker outreach workers trained to conduct qualitative research among their peers.


In describing their experiences of unlawful arrests and detention, violence, extortion, vilification and exclusions, participants present a picture of profound exploitation and repeated human rights violations. This situation has had an extreme impact on the physical, mental and social wellbeing of this population. Overall, the article details the multiple effects of sex work criminalisation on the everyday lives of sex workers and on their social interactions and relationships. Underlying their stories, however, are narratives of resilience and resistance. Sex workers in our study draw on their own individual survival strategies and informal forms of support and very occasionally opt to seek recourse through formal channels. They generally recognize the benefits of unified actions in assisting them to counter risks in their environment and mobilise against human rights violations, but note how the fluctuant and stigmatised nature of their profession often undermines collective action.


While criminal laws urgently need reform, supporting sex work self-organisation and community-building are key interim strategies for safeguarding sex workers’ human rights and improving health outcomes in these communities. If developed at sufficient scale and intensity, sex work organisations could play a critical role in reducing the present harms caused by criminalisation and stigma.


Sex work; Prostitution; Violence; Human rights; Resilience; Kenya; South Africa; Uganda; Zimbabwe

Richter, Marliese (2013): Characteristics, sexual behaviour and access to health care services for sex workers in South Africa and Kenya (PhD dissertation; Available here)

Across the globe, many people make a living from supplying sexual services for reward. This
is in spite of the heavy tolls that sexual moralism, religious fervour, criminalisation, harsh health
services and abusive security services extract from them; sex work is hard and the dangers
numerous. Many women, men and transgender people in Sub-Saharan Africa have few or no
other choices available to earn an income, while others weigh up the risks and benefits of sex
work, and decide that that the risks are worth it in the short- and/or long-term.
Of the various hazards that sex workers face, the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and
other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) have been a major focus of health research and
concern. Frustratingly, little of the knowledge generated about what is effective and necessary
to make sex work and sex workers safer, has been translated into practice, or brought to
sufficient scale. Evidence indicating the need for the decriminalisation of sex work has not
transformed the much outdated legal and policy landscape associated with the criminalisation of
sex work that is characteristic of most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. Despite a growing body
of evidence and improved programmatic responses to sex work, the political will, the necessary
funding and the urgency needed to implement an effective response to the context of sex work
in Sub-Saharan Africa are mostly absent. It is hoped that, as the voices of sex workers and sex
worker advocates become stronger and as sex workers are supported to engage with policy
makers, law enforcement agencies, and health service providers, the changes needed to make
sex work safer will be made.

Dewey, Susan/Kelly, Patty: Policing Pleasure: Sex Work, Policy, and the State in Global Perspective, New York University Press 2011.

Mónica waits in the Anti-Venereal Medical Service of the Zona Galactica, the legal, state-run brothel where she works in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Mexico. Surrounded by other sex workers, she clutches the Sanitary Control Cards that deem her registered with the city, disease-free, and able to work. On the other side of the world, Min stands singing karaoke with one of her regular clients, warily eyeing the door lest a raid by the anti-trafficking Public Security Bureau disrupt their evening by placing one or both of them in jail.
Whether in Mexico or China, sex work-related public policy varies considerably from one community to the next. A range of policies dictate what is permissible, many of them intending to keep sex workers themselves healthy and free from harm. Yet often, policies with particular goals end up having completely different consequences.
Policing Pleasure examines cross-cultural public policies related to sex work, bringing together ethnographic studies from around the world—from South Africa to India—to offer a nuanced critique of national and municipal approaches to regulating sex work. Contributors offer new theoretical and methodological perspectives that move beyond already well-established debates between “abolitionists” and “sex workers’ rights advocates” to document both the intention of public policies on sex work and their actual impact upon those who sell sex, those who buy sex, and public health more generally.