SA’s radical plan to tackle HIV in sex workers

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A three-year SA initiative promises to reach 70,000 sex workers through 1,000 peer educators, reports Al Jazeera.

In the shadow of an underpass, wearing a black bob wig, Tlaleng paces along her patch of Nugget Street, scanning the downtown Johannesburg traffic. Behind her, other women lead clients behind the crumbling walls of a gutted building in the brisk morning light. Up since dawn, she is eager to finish her shift. She plans to head to a nearby clinic that is offering a miracle that afternoon: a pill that protects against HIV.

The report says the 27-year-old mother of two came to South Africa’s economic hub with dreams of becoming a clothes designer. Until then, selling sex keeps a roof over her head. “I don’t compromise,” she says bluntly when it comes to using condoms. “I want to get money to buy my sewing machine before I get sick – then get out. I want to make a living for my kids.”

But, the report says, along the “stroll”, many have been raped or forced into unprotected sex.

The report says last June, as part the South African National Sex Worker HIV Plan launched in 2016, the country became one of the first in the world to provide PrEP, a prophylaxis pill that protects against HIV, free of charge to sex workers. Peer educators, who are current or former sex workers engaged in outreach work, had visited Tlaleng on the stroll and told her about the new drug.

The report says these peer educators are the “backbone” of the HIV plan. The three-year initiative promises to reach 70,000 sex workers through 1,000 peer educators from across South Africa, aiming to reduce HIV and improve access to testing and treatment.

Young women aged 15-24 are at such disproportionate risk of contracting HIV that the government launched a separate three-year plan last year to try to reduce infection rates. There are plans to expand young women’s public access to PrEP, with information sessions already being held in schools. With one of the highest rates of HIV in the world – at 19.2% among 15 to 49-year-olds, according to the UNAIDS agency – more than 7m South Africans are infected with the virus.

The report says South Africa’s national strategy for tackling HIV is radical compared with other nations. With their demand of “nothing for us without us”, sex worker-led organisations such as the Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce directly helped to draft the plan.

“Whatever statutes are on our law books … we cannot deny the human and unalienable rights of people who engage in sex work,” South Africa’s deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa, stated at the launch of the plan last March. “Sex work is essentially work.”

The plan demands that the Department of Justice secure a commitment to decriminalisation and also that the South African Police Service end the practice of using condoms or HIV medication as evidence of sex work and grounds for arrest.

As South Africa hosted the International Aids Summit last year, amid heckling from sex worker rights activists, Deputy Minister of Justice John Jeffery stated that only 241 criminal cases had been filed against sex workers in the past three years.
“(Prostitution is) currently illegal,” Jeffery is quoted in the report as saying, however, “that’s not restricting government from embarking on plans to assist sex workers, particularly with preventing the spread of HIV and Aids.”

Last year, the South African Law Reform Commission completed a long-awaited investigation into the decriminalisation of prostitution, but the government is waiting to decide on an official position before releasing the report.

The report says since 2014, the World Health Organisation, UNAIDS and Amnesty International have declared support for the decriminalisation of sex work, to improve access to human rights, healthcare and reduce the risk of HIV. In downtown Johannesburg, a clinic run by the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute provides dedicated care for sex workers. Peer educators operate mobile health clinics to reach those on the streets, turning rented rooms in nearby brothels into impromptu testing spots.

While the clinic treats and employs sex workers, the US President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief is a major funder and demands an anti-prostitution pledge. Deemed unconstitutional in the US owing to its infringement on free speech and no longer applied to US-based organisations, the pledge still stands as a condition for international beneficiaries.

“We are unable to advocate for decriminalisation,” executive director Francois Venter says, though police harassment is the biggest challenge sex workers report at the clinic. The clinic has had some success with sensitisation programmes, working with local police commanders, but “the police issue is a constant challenge,” according to Venter.

“Criminalisation is a bigger issue, but no one actually wants to speak out about this,” says Katlego Rasebitse, a spokesperson for Sisonke, the National Sex Worker Movement of South Africa.

Shaun Bibi, a paralegal and outreach worker with the Women’s Legal Centre’s sex worker project in Johannesburg, hands out “know-your-rights” leaflets, with the number for their 24-hour helpline to women along Nugget Street. She advises Tlaleng to report the licence plates of police who demand bribes, both money and sexual favours, to avoid criminal charges. A transgender woman and sex worker herself, Bibi speaks from experience.

The report quotes Minister of Health, Aaron Motsoaledi, as saying that decriminalisation was not necessary to providing equal healthcare to sex workers. “Let him come to Nugget Street,” Bibi laughs.

With big hoop earrings, Wendy sits boss-like on a backless office chair on Nugget. When Tlaleng was arrested some weeks before, Wendy went to the station, paid the bribe and demanded her release. “What is our government doing?” she had cried, smelling alcohol on the police officer’s breath. “You people, you’re not working!”
Captain William Mathusane, a legal adviser with the South African Police Service, is quoted in the report as saying he was not aware of specific allegations of harassment or bribery of sex workers. When it comes to decriminalisation, Mathusane believes that’s an issue for the justice department, not the police.

Jeffery, the deputy justice minister, also stressed that sex workers have the right to report harassment to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate, who investigate criminal cases committed by police, but few feel they have that recourse.

The report says in the suburb of Rosettenville, dominated by pimps, police are known to chase sex workers with pepper spray. One woman said she was made to bend over while police pepper-sprayed her genitals.

Sitting on a lumpy bed, with a TV buzzing and a hot plate left on for warmth, 24-year-old Precious describes how a police officer recently forced his way into the house and beat her, while naked, as her client was leaving. Precious says criminalisation makes it impossible to get out from under pimps, who offer a semblance of protection.

Al Jazeera report

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