Criminalisation of sex work violates human rights – Lawyer



MASERU – “Despite being a sex worker, I am also a mother, sister, daughter, and a human being who deserves respect and is entitled to enjoy human rights just like anyone else.” These words were spoken by a 35-year-old woman who has worked in the sex industry for the past decade to support her two young children, who are currently attending primary school.

She highlights the detrimental impact of criminalising sex work in Lesotho, stating that it infringes on her basic human rights and exposes her to increased vulnerability and violence. Due to the stigma attached to their profession, sex workers like her become easy targets for attackers and are unlikely to receive assistance from law enforcement.

Tragically, instances of rape, assault, and even murder are more prevalent in such criminalised environments. “The issue of criminalising sex work is intertwined with human rights, as it undermines the basic rights of personal autonomy and privacy when governments outlaw adult, voluntary, and consensual sex work,” she says, emphasising that sex work is indeed work.

“I repeat, sex work is work,” she notes, adding that if Lesotho decriminalises sex work, it would be easier for sex workers to access health services, be protected, and work freely. Despite the negative perceptions surrounding their profession, local sex workers are actively advocating for their basic human rights, access to services, and legal protections.

They firmly assert their right to be free from discrimination based on their chosen occupation. These individuals, who are 18 years old and older, willingly engage in the exchange of sexual services for money, goods, or services in various settings such as the streets, brothels, bars, homes, and online platforms.

Among them are sex workers living with HIV, those who inject drugs, and those experiencing homelessness. Unfortunately, they face a higher risk of violence and abuse due to their marginalised and dangerous working conditions, further exacerbated by societal prejudices.

In an interview with The Eye, Lepheana Mosooane, the executive director of the Key Affected Populations Alliance of Lesotho (KAPAL), emphasised the organisation’s commitment to promoting the decriminalisation of sex work and advocating for the sexual and reproductive health rights of LGBTQ+ sex workers.

KAPAL aims to establish a supportive environment where sex workers can operate legally and easily access sexual reproductive health and HIV/AIDS services.

Mosooane said KAPAL classifies sex workers into three categories: female, male, and transgender, and conducts human rights workshops to empower them and raise awareness about their rights.

The organisation provides training to various stakeholders, including law enforcement agencies, to address instances of violence and collaborates with them to advocate for the decriminalisation of sex work by urging lawmakers and policymakers to reconsider existing laws.

During an interview with The Eye, human rights lawyer Advocate ’Mamofuta Kale explained that although there is no specific law in Lesotho criminalising sex work, the definition of prostitution under Section 55 includes engaging in sexual activities for payment, effectively treating prostitution and sex work as synonymous and therefore criminalised in Lesotho.

She further mentioned that sex workers often express grievances about being apprehended or pursued by the police, as their profession is viewed as prostitution and they are targeted under relevant laws.

“Legislators have an opportunity to address this issue, particularly considering the existence of the sex worker industry. One of the reasons for this is Lesotho’s commitment to combating HIV/AIDS, given the country’s high prevalence of HIV,” she said, explaining that sex workers constitute a significant portion of the population affected by HIV, and if they are not protected, they are left behind, contributing to the overall high prevalence rate.

“Sex workers are human beings; they also need protection. What they are doing is making ends meet, which the government cannot provide,” she said, adding that for their family’s survival, that is what they do.

She added that sex workers also contribute to the economy and reduce the burden on the government.

Speaking about one of the main challenges sex workers encounter, Kale said they face dehumanisation and mistreatment, even by those who are meant to safeguard them, leaving them vulnerable and with no recourse for help.

She explained that sex workers deserve to enjoy rights just like any other person.

“Therefore, the criminalisation of sex work is a violation of their human rights,” she said.

The criminalisation of sex work infringes on various rights, including:

Privacy: Criminalisation exposes sex workers to surveillance, arrests, and public scrutiny, violating their right to privacy.

Bodily Autonomy: Sex workers’ autonomy over their own bodies is compromised when they face legal repercussions for consensual sex work.

Legal Protections: Criminalisation prevents sex workers from seeking legal protection and support.

Intersectional Discrimination: Sex workers with intersecting identities (such as gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, or migrant status) face compounded discrimination.

Vulnerability to Violence: Research by Human Rights Watch across various countries consistently shows that criminalisation makes sex workers more vulnerable to violence.

Abuse by Law Enforcement: Sex workers often face harassment, extortion, and physical or verbal abuse by police officers. In some cases, officers may even coerce sex from them. Fear of arrest prevents sex workers from reporting crimes, leaving them without recourse for justice.

Health Risks: Criminalisation negatively impacts sex workers’ right to health. For instance, in the United States, possession of condoms has been used as evidence to support prostitution charges. This practice discourages sex workers from carrying condoms, putting them at higher risk of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Stifling Advocacy and Organisation: In countries where sex work is banned, sex workers find it challenging to organise, advocate for their rights, and protect themselves. Criminalisation perpetuates stigma, violence, and impunity, endangering their health and safety.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *