In parliament on Wednesday 29 January, during public hearings on the controversial Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality (WEGE) Bill to the Portfolio Committee on Women, Children and People with Disabilities, Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) staged a demonstration in the committee room where Minister Lulu Xingwana was in attendance. Clad in their signature orange t-shirts, SWEAT members stood up and brandished placards with the words: ‘#NoWEGE’, ‘No Money for Victim Support’, ‘Sex Workers Left Out’, ‘Hate Crimes’, ‘Rural Women’, ‘Rape Increase’ and ‘Thanks But No Thanks’.
SWEAT protests during the Committee meeting.
Protests inside the parliamentary precinct are against the rules of parliament, but considering sex work is illegal in South Africa and that the WEGE Bill does not, in turn offer protection to the rights of sex workers, one can only guess that SWEAT were willing to bend some rules to get their point across. About five minutes into the demonstration, Ms Dorothy Ramodibe, Chair of the Portfolio Committee, asked the SWEAT protesters to leave willingly before security arrived to forcibly escort them out. After a few minutes they packed up their placards and left the committee room.
Earlier in the day, Danielle Coleman, SWEAT’s Human Rights and Advocacy Fellow made a submission to the Portfolio Committee on Women, Children and People with Disabilities highlighting that SWEAT rejects the WEGE bill. “Firstly, there are structural barriers that make this Bill irrelevant for women in the informal sector, including sex workers, farm workers, women in mining and unemployed women,” Coleman said.
She cited Clauses 7 and 9, saying that the Bill will “impact the lives of women in senior positions but does not address how those women in the informal sector or unemployed women will benefit”.
Coleman went on to add, “In South Africa, the Immorality Act of 1957 [later renamed the Sexual Offences Act] infamously criminalised sex between individuals across the colour line. Sex workers (sellers) were then criminalized in 1988, and clients (buyers) in 2007. To date, this Apartheid-era law, which seeks to control sexual acts between consenting adults remains... The Sexual Offences Act of 2007 repealed most of the remaining provisions of the 1957 Act, except those related to prostitution”.
Coleman also mentioned that according to a 2009 survey, “12% of sex workers reported having been raped by police, 46% threatened by police and 28% forced into providing sexual favours”. Therefore SWEAT maintains that the current law of criminalisation “propagates the disempowerment of sex workers, and therefore is in direct violation of the proposed intent of the full realisation of women’s empowerment for all South African women within the WEGE bill... Furthermore, whether in its current form or an amended version, without the decimalisation of sex work the WEGE Bill will work as double victimisation and will have the reverse effect in that the Bill itself will be disempowering for a large sector of women in South Africa [namely] sex workers” said Coleman.
During the course of the public submissions process, a handful of NGOs and women rights activists have raised concerns that the this Bill is detracting attention away from the fact that current legislation such as the Domestic Violence Act are already failing women due to the low conviction rates of men accused of either physically, sexually or verbally abusing their spouses, partners and children. The civil society organisations that have publicly rejected the WEGE bill include: the Community Law Centre, University of the Western Cape, Sonke Gender Justice Network, Triangle Project, Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre (TLAC), New World Foundation and Western Cape Network on Violence Against Women (WCNVAW).
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