Controversy over calls to legalise sex work

A search for ways to curb the spread of HIV in Swaziland has led to a public debate on legalizing sex work, which would have been unheard of 10 years ago in this poor, food-insecure country.

The woman at the centre of the debate is Senator Thuli Mswane, who is also director of Hospice at Home, a local home-based care organization headquartered in Matsapha, between the capital, Mbabane, and the country's industrial centre, Manzini.

Swaziland's new tourism developments lie in the Ezulwini area, east of Mbabane, and the combined lure of large population centres and foreign visitors has inevitably given rise to a thriving sex industry.

Mswane has announced her intention to champion the cause of legalized sex work by requesting that the justice ministry introduce a bill legalizing the sex trade as a means of controlling the spread of HIV; Swaziland has the highest prevalence rate in the world.

"Studies have shown that the trade of prostitutes [in countries where it is legal] is not risky to clients, as sex workers protect themselves; hence my appeal for government to consider legalizing brothel ownership and sex work," said Mswane.

Her announcement has created a sensation in this small conservative country. Although roadside sex workers have been a fixture in Matsapha and Ezulwini for years, the illegal profession has gone largely unacknowledged by health officials and ignored by the police.

Last year the first media exposure of an operating brothel was thought a shocking story; moreover, underage girls were found living and working there. The girls dispersed to other homes - later to resume their trade - and no arrests were made.

The incident also exposed a growth in prostitution that has mirrored rising poverty and the continuing marginalization of women. Traditional views on the role of women prevail in Swaziland's deeply patriarchal society.

"In most instances, women are the ones who engage in the trade as a result of abuse meted out by their [male] partners at home ... whilst also struggling to earn a living," Mswane noted.

Sex work does exist

Mswane's call to legalize the sex trade has been welcomed by some NGOs. "If we don't legalize sex work, women will continue to be exploited and violated, so legalizing it would mean their protection is guaranteed," said Cebile Henwood, director of the Manzini-based Swaziland Action Group against Abuse (SWAGAA).

"These people [sex workers] have rights, and deserve to be protected just like anyone else ... If sex work is legalized then women will have access to services such as health ... they will be able to insist on protection such as ensuring clients use condoms."

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Because sex workers engage in an illegal activity, reporting abuse to SWAGAA or gaining access to the justice system, as other victims of abuse could, was extremely difficult, she added.

Emmanuel Ndlangamanda, executive director of the Council of Non-Governmental Organisations (CANGO), told IRIN/PlusNews that the illegal nature of sex work made it difficult for sex workers to access health facilities, but they were at higher risk of HIV as they did not receive adequate support and education.

The proposed Sexual offences and Domestic Violence Bill, which sparked Mswane's campaign, would outlaw brothel ownership and impose a 10-year prison sentence; anyone caught residing in a brothel would also be breaking the law.

"The Bill criminalizes running of a brothel and outlines a fine for it - in other countries sex workers are part of the economy, as they are taxed and assessed on a continuous basis," Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs Ndumiso Mamba admitted to MPs.

However, he dismissed any suggestion that his ministry would pursue decriminalization. "Based on Christian principles, government cannot be seen to be condoning it," he said.

Most Swazis seem to agree. A non-scientific on-line poll conducted by the Swazi Observer, a local newspaper, found that 87.5 percent of respondents did not want prostitution legalized, compared to 12.5 percent who supported decriminalization.

The Council of Swaziland Churches, an umbrella body, has slammed Mswane's call to decriminalize sex work. "As a faith-based organization we cannot be seen promoting sex work," said Khangezile Dlamini, secretary-general of the umbrella body.

"Sex workers are responsible for the spread of HIV and while ... [they do not have] multiple concurrent partners, [they have] a number of clients. Besides being Biblically wrong, in Swazi culture sex work has never been ... [condoned]."

The debate has, at least, established the reality of sex work, and highlighted the exploited lives of the women who make their living from it, even if government and the traditional authorities have shown no desire to entertain, much less pursue decriminalization of the trade.