SWEAT’s Response to utterances by the UN Women Executive Director, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka

The Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) were shocked to view the above recording of Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka airing her opinions on Sex Work using language that is disempowering and offensive to Sex Workers. We stand in full solidarity with Sisonke, the national movement of sex workers in their opposition to these sentiments.

Sex workers have always been subjected to stigma, discrimination, marginalisation. Colonial laws and apartheid- era policies have fuelled and re-enforced this position even more. The result of these prejudices has been that sex workers can only be seen as immoral criminals or defenceless victims. It has stripped women of their dignity by keeping them oppressed and not recognising their agency. It is deeply dispiriting to see self-defined women’s rights activists buying into the same tired tropes.

It is true that many if not most sex workers have dreams and ambitions for something after sex work, but within the limited choices that we have we choose sex work to support ourselves and our families. That choice does not make us desperate – it is s a personal decision that needs to be respected. The Constitution protects our rights to bodily integrity and yet while consensual sex between adults is legal on almost every other instance, empowered women who willingly sell sexual services are made into criminals. To be clear: criminalising our livelihoods achieves nothing that is in the interests of sex workers.

Contrary to common belief, sex workers come from all walks of life and are not all poor and uneducated.  They are breadwinners, mothers, fathers, sisters, carers, and work just as hard as everyone else in the country,playing an integral part in contributing to our country’s economy.

Organisations like the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT), SISONKE, the National Movement of Sex Workers in South Africa, Mothers for the Future (M4F) and the ASIJIKI Coalition (i.e.) 112 human rights’ organisations promote/ advance the recognition of the health, legal and human rights of all sex workers. It is taking away the rights and agency of sex workers that makes them victims and vulnerable. It cuts them off from all the labour laws and structures that could improve their working conditions; it diminishes their confidence in the role they play in their families; and also fuels and legitimises rejection and discrimination in their communities.

We demand a response from Ms. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka explaining her violent and vile comments relating to sex work as being undignified and unhealthy. She appears to be implying that sex workers are dirty and vectors of disease. In fact, it is the ongoing criminalisation of sex work that forces sex workers to live on the margins of society. It is the discrimination they face that creates their risk of is when the police confiscate condoms from sex workers thus putting their health and lives at risk.

Full decriminalisation is the only legal option that protects the dignity and rights of Sex Workers – it has been the consistent demand of Sex Workers in South Africa for years and it is incumbent on all of us who identify as Women’s rights activists to support that call. #SexWorkisWork #DecrimSexWorkNow