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South Africa mulls prostitution law ahead of World Cup

Cape Town — With hundreds of thousands of tourists expected in South Africa for the 2010 World Cup, a new debate has erupted over legalising prostitution in a country with the world’s largest AIDS epidemic.

Legal experts have already suggested proposals to legalise prostitution, saying police would be freed to focus on serious crime instead of petty vice — a position that has won support among some police officials.

Kim, a 35-year-old transgendered sex-worker from Cape Town, is familiar with the challenges of prostitution in South Africa, where reports of bribery and rape by police and other human rights violations are rife.

"I think (decriminalisation) would benefit sex workers. At the moment sex work is not being recognised as a career and sex workers’ human rights are being violated," she told AFP.

Kim is homeless, and addicted to the sedative known as Mandrax, known locally as "buttons" and crystal meth sold as "tik". But she sees herself as a "social worker" after 11 years in the industry, and is looking forward to the extra arrivals during the World Cup.

Advocates for sex workers say that the existing system simply allows criminals to regulate the trade.

"Currently the way it would take place in the World Cup — it would be regulated by criminals. It is a window of opportunity for criminals," said Eric Harper, director of the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT).

Before the 2006 World Cup in Germany there were fears that some 40,000 sex workers would be trafficked into the country, where prostitution is regulated.

However a report by the International Organisation for Migration showed this "did not occur" and the figures suggested were "unfounded and unrealistic".

"Whilst it is true that the fears anticipated in Germany were unrealistic, in Germany sex work is regulated. Sex work is not regulated in South Africa," Harper told AFP.

The justice ministry’s Law Reform Commission has proposed possible options, including a blanket decriminalisation or a new system allowing government to regulate the trade.

Researcher Dallene Clark said the commission’s work was not tied to the World Cup, but was part of a 10-year review South Africa’s sexual offences law.

"We are not at all influenced by 2010. While one has to be cognisant of it, one is looking at a long-term solution appropriate for South Africa."

Leading among the arguments against decriminalisation are fears of an increase in human trafficking, and an even greater AIDS risk in a country where five million of 48 million population are infected with HIV.

"Research tends to show that prostitutes (especially women) are more vulnerable to infection than their clients, and are often unable to insist on safe sex practices," the Law Reform Commission said in a report.

Kim echoes this, saying prostitutes offered "double without a condom" may not be able to resist the offer of extra cash.

SWEAT is pushing for decriminalisation with the addition of new laws to protect the rights of sex workers.

"They would have access to labour law. They would have a contract. They would have sick leave, set working hours. They would be less vulnerable to exploitation," said Harper.

But he added: "We are not promoting sex work as a career option."

Fran Blandy/AFP/Expatica