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Sex work, reform initiatives and HIV/AIDS in inner-city Johannesburg

Marlise Richter


The on-going criminalisation of sex work in South Africa, concurrent sexual partnerships, socio-economic vulnerability, migrant status and gender-based violence intensify sex workers' risk of contracting HIV. These factors combine to restrict the skills, ability and resources of sex workers to negotiate safer sex and to access HIV prevention, treatment and healthcare services. The paper situates the living and working conditions of sex workers in Hillbrow, an inner-city area of Johannesburg, within the South African legal context, especially in regard to current law reform initiatives regarding sex work, as well as the increasing anxiety about the influx of (sex) tourists during the 2010 FIFA World Cup. In addition, the paper describes an intervention by the Reproductive Health & HIV Research Unit at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, an innovator in providing mobile healthcare services and education to hotel-based sex workers in Hillbrow. The paper contends that a legal-rightsapproach to HIV risk and vulnerability, together with powerful public health considerations, render decriminalisation an imperative response to sex workers' material conditions.

Keywords: gender issues; health interventions; legal aspects; prostitution; sex industry; sex work; South Africa

African Journal of AIDS Research 2008, 7(3): 323–333
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eISSN: 1608-5906
print ISSN: 1727-9445