FOCUS AREA 5: Sex Work Project

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The Sex Work Project works to ensure that sex workers are treated with dignity, and are granted the same rights under the Constitution as anyone else. We ensure their protection from mistreatment by employers, law enforcement officers, and others. Our strategic impact litigation is aimed at holding the State accountable for the human rights abuses experienced by sex workers.

In addition, we provide individual legal assistance to sex workers through our Legal Aid Clinic.  This has become a crucial element of this project because of the criminalisation of sex work. These workers are made vulnerable on a whole number of fronts, such as gender, race, class, health and education.

left-quote  The criminalisation of sex work is ineffective as a deterrent, and this leads to the increased abuse of sex workers, and an inefficient allocation of the State’s resources in the fight against crime. Thus, sex workers are stigmatised in civil society—which has a negative impact on their ability to access everyday services and enjoy family life—and undermines any interventions to fight the spread of HIV.  right-quote

Legal services are therefore an essential component of any effective human rights response to challenging the criminalisation of sex work. Legal services enable sex workers to claim and enforce their rights.

Below are the 5 pillars of the core legal services that form part of our legal assistance model:

  1. Legal Advice

We provide free legal advice to sex workers. We make ourselves available to host legal clinics in all creative spaces.  A creative space is an activity hosted by our partner organisations. It is a safe space for sex workers to meet and discuss the issues that they face.

We also provide legal advice to sex workers on an outreach basis and through our 24-hour paralegal service Helpline. If we are unable to assist, or the issue falls outside our mandate, we refer the sex worker to a partner organisation.

  1. Legal representation

We aim to provide strategic impact litigation that is in the best interests of sex workers. During our project, we became aware that sex workers needed assistance with their day-to-day legal problems, such as representation in court at criminal trials, bail applications and contesting fines. Thus, we have expanded our legal services to aid with court representations when it enhances or expands our strategic impact litigation.

  1. Strategic impact litigation

Our litigation strategy is approached piecemeal: we aim to challenge all the human rights abuses experienced by sex workers at different courts to develop a legal jurisprudence on the human rights for sex workers.

Our aim is to go back to the Constitutional Court, with a body of evidence obtained from sex workers and the legal precedent which will give persuasive value to our arguments for the decriminalisation of sex work.

  1. Advocating for decriminalisation of sex work

In addition to litigation, we have been involved in advocacy activities to create awareness of the impact of laws on sex workers.  Our legal advocacy activities include submissions to Parliament on legislation impacting on sex workers, and letters of complaint to human rights bodies, government and other stakeholders.

Our advocacy activities extend to the training of paralegals, sex workers and partner organisations on legal rights and remedies. Furthermore, we are working towards creating a national network of partners to provide legal assistance to sex workers.

  1. The role of paralegals

An Integral component of our legal model is community-based paralegals. At the beginning of our project, we employed an attorney to provide legal assistance and carry out the activities. We soon realised that sex workers did not trust anyone in the justice system including lawyers. In addition, the only time we were accessing sex workers was at weekly creative space sessions, and not many sex workers attended these. Thus, we did not have full access to the sex worker communities. We decided to train some current or former sex workers as paralegals. We felt that it was important for the paralegals to be from the sex worker community, because of the trust issues that we had experienced previously.

The work of our paralegals falls within the ambit of our entire legal services model. The activities are carried out using the paralegals—an attorney supervises and trains them to interact with the sex workers.

Additional legal services

The core legal services covered by our Legal Aid Clinic are supported by additional legal services such as legal and human rights education, legal research, monitoring, of law reform and advocacy activities. These activities have the potential to increase the uptake and social impact, of the legal service programme significantly.  These services include:

  • Educating sex workers about their legal and human rights. This is essential to ensure that the sex workers who access legal services are aware of their rights so that they can identify when these have been infringed.
  • Educating lawyers, paralegals, government, prosecutors, police, media, health care workers, employers, trade unions and other groups about human rights, the law, and the effective provision of services.
  • Researching trends, including the monitoring and documentation of human rights violations.
  • Advocacy and campaigning on policy and law reform issues, for changes to practices, and for increased resources. This may include drafting model laws and providing input for law reform processes.