At least 200 sex workers took to the streets of Johannesburg, South Africa, on Thursday to demand the decriminalization of prostitution.
Speaking to AFP, one of the protesters wearing a long dress and hiking boots said, “This is what I wear to work. No high heels or short skirts.”
She added that sex workers must be respected, saying the job “requires expertise and skills” not known by many.
Constance Mathe who has been in the profession for 16 years, said she managed to buy a house and raise a family out of the money she earned from sex work.
Mathe, a mother of two, used to earn 1,000 South African Rands ($72) from her job as a domestic worker, but she claims the “viweing of sex-work as a crime” makes their operations harder and riskier.
Some of the protesters covered their faces in masks while others carried posters reading, “Where is the crime? and “Decriminalize sex work now!”
The country’s laws on prostitution date back to the apartheid colonial era and recommend strict punishment to sex workers and their clients.
The most recent legislative change on the matter was the Sexual Offences and Related Matters Amendment Act of 2007, which states that any person who has unlawful intercourse or commits an act of indecency for a reward is guilty of an offense and viable for punishment.
Yonela Sinqu of the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) says some sex workers are abused by their clients but do not report for fear of more harassment from police officers and other authorities.
“The police harass us and ask us for money. And those sex workers who are abused by their clients cannot just go to the police to report because they would be arrested and presecuted for being sex workers,” Sinqu said.
SWEAT also says that around 10 sex workers are killed every year and thousands of others mistreated, but most cases go unreported.
Despite being illegal, prostitution, both buying and selling of sex remains widespread in South Africa. In 2013, the SWEAT organization estimated that between 120,000 and 170,000 prostitutes were operating in South Africa.
HIV has also been a rampant issue in South Africa, but condom distribution by the government and other health agencies has seen a drastic drop in new infections.