SWEAT was a birth child of the early nineties, its origin capturing the excitement and hope that went with the transition from apartheid to democracy and a constitution respecting human rights. Shane Petzer, a male sex worker and Ilse Pauw, a Clinical Psycholigist, who together sought to establish a safe sex education project for adult sex workers. The founding members of SWEAT, drove forward the work which in 1994 developed into a project of ASET [AIDS Support, Education and Training] with the purpose of establishing a non-governmental service organisation focusing on safer sex educational work with adult sex workers. With the expansion of work SWEAT became independent in 1996, and registered as a non-profit organisation.

Outreach work to sex workers working on the streets and within agencies extended beyond safer sex education to include crisis counseling, legal advice and skills training for sex workers. This was facilitated by the appointment of fieldworkers in both programmes in 1999. During this time a firm internal infrastructure was established to maintain and enable further development of the organization. In 2000 SWEAT began actively advocating for the decriminalization of adult sex work and an advocacy programme was established.

Since 2002, SWEAT has been reaching sex workers nationally to engage in issues related to health and legal reform. In 2003 SWEAT supported the launch of Sisonke, a sex worker movement. 2003 also saw the launch of the research programme which was initiated in order to gather credible information on sex work and the sex work industry. SWEAT saw this research as a crucial part of understanding the needs and concerns of persons selling sex, both freely and under exploitative and violent conditions. Since 2006, the research programme has formed an important resource base for the organization and enables evidenced based advocacy and lobbying work to occur. SWEAT recognizes the need to have credible published information that we can refer to when promoting law reform and addressing human rights abuses. In 2007 joint research mapping the sex work industry in Cape Town, including investigation of the prevalence of trafficking, was undertaken with the Institute for Security Studies, ISS and was published.

Work with Sisonke was followed by the setting up of a national leadership training programme which has been a core project within SWEAT since 2006. 2007 witnessed the development of a regional Sisonke structure in Cape Town, whilst working alongside the Reproductive Health and Research Unit, RHRU, who supported the development of Johannesburg Sisonke. A regional structure was launched in Johannesburg in 2008.

Since 2007, SWEAT has adopted a more developmental approach. This has involved shifting emphasis onto community development. In 2008 a sex worker, Sisonke representative, was recruited to the board and sex workers were employed as staff. 2008 saw a drive towards extensive partnership work and networking enabling work to occur nationally without SWEAT having to be based nationally. Alongside work in the urban areas, in 2008 SWEAT in partnership with partnership PPASA supported the development of structures to take forward local Sisonke rural formations in Beaufort West. SWEAT is also supporting the development of Sisonke in, Rustenburg, Carltonville and Motherwell/Port Elizabeth.

In 2008 life skill retreats and one-to-one life skill support sessions were also initiated in partnership with PPASA as a ‘next step’ approach, alongside the use of referrals to other agencies. The development of the peer education program enabled sex workers to be placed at the forefront of service prevision – outreach interventions – as active agents as opposed passive subjects to be acted upon. Partners in Sexual Health (PSH) assist with the training of peer educators. The use of creative arts – drama, dance and arts – became central to the work SWEAT does, functioning as a bridge and transitional space that enables further engagement like the life skills program.

In 2008 SWEAT joined the Counter Trafficking Coalition and began to work more closely with PSH around work with truckers. 2008 also saw the completion of SWEAT strategic planning process.

Working at the front line as well as speaking from a place of engagement with and understanding of the day-to-day realities and challenges that face sex workers SWEAT is playing more of a human rights watch function. Moreover, this process is supported by the linking of female sex workers to other women’s struggles, like the 1n9 campaign and the building of women’s activism. This process is supported by a commitment to use litigation strategies and the media as a way of exposing human rights violations and other challenges sex workers face. An example of this was the hearing of a case of unfair dismissal of a sex worker from an indoor agency at the labour court. The result of this is that SWEAT has a high media profile.

In 2009 SWEAT initiated and co-hosted the first ever African sex worker conference and established an African sex worker alliance. The conference saw 12 sex workers from different African countries ‘come out’, and read press statements in which they demanded Rights Not Rescue and that sex work is seen as work. In 2009 SWEAT won an interdict in the High Court in Cape Town which prohibits the arrest of sex workers for an ulterior purpose. As part of this process a group of sex workers publically petitioned out side the high court, an action that has not occurred before. This is a ground breaking case and ultimately, and after a number of years, it is now hoped that sex workers will have increased access to criminal and civil remedies for abuse.

2009 also sees sex workers driving a petition around police harassment. It sees SWEAT initiate special programs of action to engage with harder to reach sex workers, like foreign and male sex workers and the piloting of debriefing sessions inside brothels. It sees the piloting of an interactive communications web site centre enabling sex workers to comment and respond as journalists. This initiative forms part of a broader drive to create a South African and African human rights defence program of action in which sex workers will be equipped with skills to expose human rights violations. SWEAT is working in partnership with RHRU, POWA, Women’s Legal Centre and Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre towards the realization of an empowered sex worker sector in South Africa, which is capacitated and thus significantly better able to defend its human rights and challenge human rights abuses. This occurs through the enabling of peer educators to function as human rights defenders, the creation of an enabling environment in which sex workers feel safe and supported to come forward and report human rights violations as well as seek legal redress and the proactive use of the media and other communication systems to expose human rights violations

As regards the relevance of SWEAT, a service user satisfaction survey in 2009 confirmed that SWEAT has credibility amongst its service users. Lastly, 2009 sees a drive towards professionalism, accountability and transparency and commitment to a learning and development program enabling continuous advancement and the production of spaces to think and work through concerns.