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Sex Work Decriminalisation Debate Sparks Controversy Among Stakeholders in Lesotho

11 March 2024 by Limpho Sello

Est Read Time: 7 min(s) 13 sec(s)

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Maseru sex workers wait for clients on the streets at night. Credit: The Post Newspaper.

In a hall packed with traditional community leaders, civic groups, journalists, and members of the Key Affected Populations Alliance of Lesotho (KAPAL), Area Chief of Ha-Leqele, Tšosane Mphutlane, stood prominently.

His assertion that “decriminalising sex work will destroy numerous families and cultivate misconduct among Basotho children” sent shivers through the representatives of civic groups advocating for the legalisation of prostitution in Lesotho.

Mphutlane, alongside other traditional leaders, vehemently argues that legalising sex work in Lesotho contradicts the country’s cultural norms and entrenched stereotypes regarding the expected conduct of Basotho women. They advocate for its elimination, believing that decriminalisation would set negative standards for the country’s future.

On the opposing side of the debate over the decriminalisation of sex work stood Nkalimeng Makhube, a representative from the Lesotho National Federation of Organisations of the Disabled (LNFOD).

In Lesotho, Makhube argues, parents often impose religion and traditional beliefs on their children to suppress them when they choose paths that contradict their parents’ beliefs.

“I fail to see why we cannot advocate for the decriminalisation of sex work; this will allow individuals who choose to engage in this profession to do so without facing violation or stigma,” Makhube stated.

For Makhube and her colleagues in the civil society organisations, legalising sex work in Lesotho would guarantee constitutional protection for sex workers’ rights, shielding them from harmful practices such as sexual and physical abuse from their clients.

These conflicting viewpoints from traditional leaders and civic groups were voiced during a two-day meeting organised by the Key Affected Populations Alliance of Lesotho (KAPAL), aimed at garnering support for the legalisation of sex work.

Support is being sought in light of concerning reports of high levels of sexual and physical violations against sex workers in Lesotho.

Maseru leads in sexual and physical violations

There are at least 7,500 sex workers in Maseru, Leribe, Botha-Bothe, and Mafeteng. On February 29, 2024, KAPAL Executive Director Lepheana Mosooane presented findings from a 2019 Integrated Bio-behavioural Surveillance Survey report. The report underscored the prevalence of both physical and sexual violations against sex workers, particularly in Lesotho’s capital, Maseru.

It noted that at least 15 out of every 100 sex workers in Maseru have experienced physical violations while carrying out their duties. In Leribe, around 10 out of every 100 sex workers have experienced physical violations.

Sexual violence rates are particularly high among sex workers in the capital Maseru (17.8 percent), followed by Mafeteng at 12.2 percent, and Botha-Bothe at 9.2 percent.

Even more alarming is the stark reality that over 5,000 female sex workers in the districts of Maseru, Leribe, Botha-Bothe, and Mafeteng are grappling with HIV, with a staggering prevalence rate of 71.9 percent. This deeply underscores a significant public health concern.

This concerning figure marks a substantial increase from 47.6 percent recorded in 2019, as revealed by the Integrated Bio-behavioral Surveillance Survey (IBBSS2) report.

In December 2023, the Joint Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) estimated the HIV prevalence among sex workers in these four districts. Notably, Leribe emerged with the highest prevalence at 57 percent, followed by Mafeteng at 45 percent, Botha-Bothe at 39 percent, and Maseru at 38 percent.

Top of Form

“I also want to emphasize that HIV affects everyone,” Mosooane stated, elaborating, “Anyone who has the potential to engage in sexual activity is affected because they cannot predict the background or HIV status of their sexual partners. With the problem escalating daily, should we simply ignore it?”

Repeal Section 55 of the Penal Code – Mosooane

KAPAL Executive Director Lepheana Mosooane. Credit: Provided.

Mosooane argues that KAPAL advocates for the decriminalisation of sex work because a current provision in the Penal Code of 2010, which criminalises sex work, directly contributes to the high rate of new HIV infections in Lesotho.

Section 55 of the Penal Code defines a “prostitute” as a person who engages in sexual activity for payment.

According to Section 55(2) of the Penal Code, “A person who incites, instigates, engages, or procures another to engage, either in Lesotho or elsewhere, in prostitution, commits an offense.”

Mosooane emphasized that the criminalization of sex work infringes upon sex workers’ fundamental right to earn a livelihood. Furthermore, he highlighted that the criminalisation of sex work exacerbates violence, stigma, and discrimination against sex workers.

“Criminalisation of sex work violates the human right to have sex with people of their choice. Criminalisation of sex work violates the right to bodily autonomy. It also limits the human right of equal access to sexual reproductive health services and the contributing factor to police brutality and rape,” Mosooane said.

Tšosane Mphutlane, Area Chief of Leqele, remains unpersuaded by Mosooane’s arguments. On February 29, 2024, Mphutlane contended that sex work was not the sole sector contributing to new HIV infections in Lesotho.

He argued that individuals engaging in unprotected sex with multiple partners also play a significant role in the spread of HIV.

Therefore, he asserted that citing sex work, in its current illegal state, as a contributor to new infections was not a sufficient reason to advocate for its decriminalisation.

“Sex workers have chosen this profession fully aware of the risks of infection they face, whether through transmitting the virus or contracting it themselves. They already navigate the streets with great courage,” Mphutlane remarked.

“Furthermore, clients seeking their services should exercise caution and remain faithful to their regular partners instead of resorting to seeking sex services from sex workers.”

However, ‘Makuena Malefetsane from the Key Affected Populations Alliance of Lesotho (KAPAL) emphasized that regulating sex work entails the establishment of private and secure venues for sex workers and their clients, akin to brothels.

“With the existence of brothels, we can ensure compulsory testing or screening for sexually transmitted infections before any sexual intercourse, similar to practices in other countries where sex work is legal. This measure will significantly limit or prevent further infections,” Malefetsane explained.

She added: “For sex workers in Lesotho, negotiating condom use is a challenge, and given the sexual violence they are exposed to, they are highly vulnerable to infections, just as their clients are at a significantly elevated risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections.”

Civic groups stand firm: Refusal to back down

Meanwhile, representatives of non-governmental organizations who attended the meeting stood firm in their advocacy for the legalization of sex work in Lesotho, refusing to relent on their stance.

However, their stance faced opposition from Lithoteng Community Councillor, Relebohile Sechache, who adamantly stated his refusal to support sex work. Sechache expressed concerns that legalizing sex work in Lesotho would exacerbate existing social problems in the country.

“While the abuse suffered by sex workers is evident and conspicuous, my question is, what initiatives have been undertaken to foster a supportive environment for them beyond the streets? What efforts are being made by individuals and organizations advocating for them to ensure their social and physical well-being is safeguarded?” Sechache questioned.

“I fail to comprehend why sex workers cannot seek alternative employment opportunities. Many women have successfully raised and educated their children until completion of high school. How can they abandon their respectable jobs to subject themselves to such risks? How do they expect us to assist them?” asked Sechache.

KAPAL Executive Director, Lepheana Mosooane, cautioned Sechache and others about the consequences of obstructing progress.

Mosooane cited an African Proverb: “Never plant thorns on someone’s path, for your children may choose to walk the same path one day.”

Nkalimeng Makhube from the Lesotho National Federation of Organisations of the Disabled (LNFOD) argues that the courage of sex workers in navigating the streets alone is not sufficient; they also need assurance that the law is on their side.

“Similar to any other profession, sex workers must be aware of where to seek protection and justice when they face wrongdoing in their line of work. In instances of violation, they should have confidence in receiving justice from law enforcement,” Makhube stated.

Kekeletso Motopi, representative of Khathang Tema Baitšokoli, stressed the significance of persistently lobbying community leaders, although she expressed doubts about their ability to fully comprehend the issue. She highlighted that the debate now revolves around the necessity of legislation, emphasizing that it stems from the notion that sex work begins with community leaders and that safeguarding sex workers begins with them.

“I believe addressing these underlying issues will pave the way for smoother progress,” Motopi concluded.

Call for action

In an effort to effectively address the issue and gain the support of traditional leaders, Mosooane highlighted advocacy efforts by organisations such as the Smart Sex Workers Guide, United Nations (UN) agencies, and international advocacy groups like Amnesty International, all of whom advocate for the legalisation of sex work.

He referenced the Amnesty International Policy on State Obligations to Respect, Protect and fulfill the Human Rights of Sex Workers, which encourages countries to legalize sex work. Mosooane quoted the policy, stating: “Repeal existing laws and/or refrain from introducing new laws that criminalize or penalize directly or in practice the consensual exchange of sexual services between adults for remuneration…”

He further noted that the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights emphasizes that countries should implement measures to fully protect individuals working in the sex industry from all forms of violence, coercion, and discrimination. “They should ensure that such individuals have access to the full range of sexual and reproductive healthcare services.”

Mosooane highlighted The Lancet as one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious medical journals.

“In July 2014, The Lancet published a special issue on HIV and sex workers,” he said, highlighting that the publication indicated that the decriminalisation of sex work would have the most significant impact on HIV epidemics across all settings, potentially averting 33-46 percent of HIV infections in the next decade.

Based on the compelling arguments from reputable international organizations, Mosooane recommended the decriminalisation of sex work and the reinforcement of interministerial policies on HIV/AIDS and Human Rights.

He emphasised the importance of mobilising domestic funding to protect the rights of sex workers, improve healthcare settings, and promote human rights.

Additionally, he advocated for meaningful community engagement and the modification of programs to be led by sex workers, with a suggested proportion of 33 percent representation in decision-making positions.

“Furthermore, implementing sex worker-led training programs for healthcare workers is imperative,” Mosooane emphasised.

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