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Health project helps sex workers – but rogue cops a problem

The Aids council’s programme is a “big step in the right direction”, but abuse by police still needs to be tackled, says an HIV specialist.

About 153 000 people in South Africa make a living as sex workers, according to new research conducted by the South African National Aids Council (Sanac) and presented in Newtown, Johannesburg, on Monday.

Sanac chief executive Fareed Abdullah said that six out of every 10 sex workers were HIV infected because their work exposed them “to a hugely increased risk of infection” and because the country’s “general HIV services simply do not meet the special needs” of this group.

Abdullah said the fact that sex work was illegal in South Africa made it difficult to address the “heavy social stigma” associated with the profession, as well as their low access to health services.

The council, together with the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (Sweat), conducted surveys among sex workers in 12 sites across the country in 2013, to help them to develop a health and education programme for this vulnerable group.

Less danger to the workers and their clients

On Monday Sanac announced the details of the programme, which helps sex workers to get access to health services such as “HIV counselling and testing, treatment for STIs [sexually transmitted infections], antiretroviral treatment, contraception and psychosocial counselling”, as well as assistance with drug and alcohol abuse.

The council was criticised by HIV experts for not doing enough in the national response to HIV: in November the Treatment Action Campaign said Sanac “seems unwilling or unable to address the severe problems facing our public healthcare system and thereby our Aids response”. This was said after attempts to meet the council about problems in Mpumalanga were ignored.

HIV expert Francois Venter, of the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute, agreed that Sanac “should be doing more. However, a programme like this is a big step in the right direction.”

He said more work should be done with politicians and law enforcement to reduce the dangers that sex workers and their clients are exposed to.

“I’ve asked sex workers and they say the single biggest thing that would help them would be to stop harassment by police who rob and rape them.”

Amy Green was a health reporter at Bhekisisa from 2013 until 2016.