Sex workers and advocacy groups fear World Cup crackdown

JABULISILE works the streets of Hillbrow, a rough area normally avoided by tourists, but just a stone's throw from one of the World Cup stadiums she hopes will bring in visitors looking for sex.

JABULISILE works the streets of Hillbrow, a rough area normally avoided by tourists, but just a stone's throw from one of the World Cup stadiums she hopes will bring in visitors looking for sex.

"The World Cup will be good for business," said the 48-year-old.

Her work brings the risk of arrest - for her and her clients.

She hopes the authorities will let her work in peace during the World Cup. She dreams of earning enough to build a nest egg to let her leave prostitution.

But Jabulisile could be disappointed. Despite calls to decriminalise prostitution, South Africa might instead try to crack down.

In September Cape Town set up a vice squad tasked with "cleaning up" the city's brothels and prostitutes - a move applauded by religious groups.

"Moralism doesn't help in term of public health and human rights," said Marlise Richter, a researcher who collaborates with sex worker advocacy groups.

"Making sex work more invisible makes it harder for sex workers to negotiate safer sex, and it will have a greater influence on HIV prevalence."

SA already has the world's biggest HIV caseload, with 5,7million of its 48 million people infected. About 45 percent of prostitutes have the disease, according to a 1998 study.

Branding their work as a crime also leaves prostitutes vulnerable to abuse, Richter said.

"The police harass us, they ask for money," Jabulisile said.

In 1997 SA revised its sex crimes laws. Parliament decriminalised homosexuality, and toughened penalties for rape and paedophilia. Early next year lawmakers are due to consider a human trafficking law.

But criminal penalties for adult prostitution remain unchanged.

Without new legislation in place before the World Cup, prostitutes are seeking a moratorium on enforcement during the competition. For the moment the government isn't taking a decision.

Sibani Mngadi, spokesperson for the Ministry for Women, said the government had taken "no position at this stage".

The government won't wade into the issue soon, said Chandre Gould, an Institute for Security Studies researcher.

"It's such a difficult matter, I don't think anybody in the ruling party is going to push for this issue to be debated by Parliament before the World Cup," said Gould.

"We know SA has put energy into tidying up," Richter said.

"If you follow the signs from Cape Town, our fear is that these vice squads will be rolled out to other big areas as well." - Sapa-AFP

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