Sex workers march in Johannesburg calling for decriminalisation

Protesters also want safe spaces for women in the city

By Masego Mafata

28 May 2021

Sex workers and supporters joined the #FunkItImWalking in Johannesburg CBD on Thursday. They were calling for the decriminalisation of sex work and safe spaces for women in the city. Photo: Masego Mafata

“For as long as the state criminalises sex workers, who are adults working to sustain their families, there is no freedom,” says Katlego Rasebitse of Sisonke sex workers advocacy group.

He joined about 80 people from various sex workers’ rights groups and supporters who gathered at the Beyers Naude Square in Johannesburg for the #FunkItImWalking on Thursday.

They walked to Constitution Hill singing struggle songs and chanting “Funk it I’m walking! Let’s walk to freedom”, drawing the attention of bystanders in the inner city.

The walk was organised as a collaboration between Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT), Sisonke and the Asijiki Coalition.

According to founder, Nomsa Mazwai, the #FunkItImWalking campaign aims to raise awareness about making Johannesburg streets safe for women. Mazwai said supporting the decriminalisation of sex work may improve the safety of sex workers.

Constance Mathe, Asijiki Coalition coordinator, said, “We are not saying the decriminalisation of sex work will completely erase the stigma and discrimination, but it will bring about access to justice, health and protection for sex workers. It will contribute to a safer working environment.”

Mathe said sex workers have been finding it difficult to open cases of gender-based violence. Rasebitse said some sex workers are profiled by police officers, targeted and arrested during their day-to-day activities. “The police are supposed to protect sex workers but they use their powers to abuse and harass sex workers. They ask for bribes and sexual favours,” said Mathe.

“Sex workers’ rights are human rights. I am no different from a hairdresser that is providing a service with their hands. I’m just using my body to provide a service. Sex work is a service, an agreement between two adults and I see no crime in that,” said Nhlanhla Gwendoline Sibanda, a sex worker who attended the walk.

The group will submit a memorandum to the City of Johannesburg. Included in the demands is a call for the prioritisation of women’s safety in the city, as well as the decriminalisation of sex work, said Rasebitse.

Rasebitse said although decriminalising sex work has reached Cabinet, there has been no progress. He said the process would go quicker if it was started at local government level.

Lerato Mthiyane from the Gauteng Department of Community Safety encouraged the marchers to join “structures and departmental forums” where they can relay their concerns to government.

Rasebitse said the group hopes to host the #FunkItImWalking walks annually until its demands are met.