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August 7, Video Video: Mlilo, whose name I have changed for her protection, would prefer if her job selling sex was protected by law so that she could be sure to make it home safely to her children every night. Instead, she lives in constant danger of being harassed, arrested, or detained by police. The police abuse forces her into the shadows, where sex workers often face violence from male solicitors and less protection against HIV.
South African authorities are compromising the safety and wellbeing of thousands of women like Mlilo by treating sex work as a crime, we and a partner group have found. But it doesn't have to be this way. Whether interviewing sex workers in wealthy US cities or small South African towns, we consistently find police abuse to be one of criminalization's main cruelties.
Sex workers often face harassment, extortion, and rape, and vulnerability to violence—at the hands of both police officers and men who purport to be customers.
Women tell us that because they cannot trust members of law enforcement, they are deterred from reporting attacks by men who pretend to be clients but who abuse, rape, and sometimes even try to kill them. Sex workers have also told us that being arrested and detained by police has interrupted their access to health care, including essential HIV treatment. But South Africa is not the only nation whose policies put sex workers in danger. Both are influential countries whose constitutions are relatively strong on human rights, but whose communities are plagued by endemic violence against women.
Sex work is illegal in both countries. Nevada is the only US state where the exchange of sex for money is allowed. Fortunately, South Africa and the United States are both sites of growing movements to decriminalize sex work once and for all. In both countries, there is also the risk that half-measures could derail the road to progress.