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Prostitution Declared Legal in South Africa - 2001-08-02


A court in South Africa has declared prostitution legal. Public health advocates and women's rights activists are celebrating.

The Pretoria High Court upheld an appeal by Christine Jacobs against her conviction for prostitution. The two presiding judges, T. T. Spoelstra and George Webster, said part of South Africa's Sexual Offenses Act - the part governing prostitution - is unconstitutional because it discriminates against women.

The law only prohibited women from being paid for sex, not men. And, if a man had sex with a prostitute, only the woman would be guilty of a crime.

Although the judges ruled prostitution to be legal, they said it is still illegal to run a brothel or act as a pimp. They said that amounts to in their words "virtual trafficking in human beings."

The High Court decision must still be confirmed by South Africa's Constitutional Court before police can actually stop arresting sex workers. The government has not yet decided whether it will fight the court ruling. The justice department issued a statement saying it needs to review the court's judgment in detail before taking the next step.

One of Ms. Jacobs' lawyers, Julian Knight, told South African state radio that criminalizing prostitution has never made it go away. "One cannot deny the social consequences that flow [from prostitution]. But on the other hand, you cannot deny the fact that banning has driven it underground," he said. Other legal experts and activists who have worked for the legalization of prostitution have welcomed the court decision, but most refused to comment in detail until they have had time to study the ruling.

But South Africa's main opposition party immediately welcomed the court judgment. A Democratic Alliance official said legalizing and regulating prostitution will make it easier to control the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, particularly HIV and AIDS. He also said regulating the sex trade instead of fighting it will allow local authorities to clean up the notorious red-light districts in Johannesburg and Cape Town.

But a prominent Christian activist group has condemned the court decision, saying it will be impossible for South Africa to regulate the sex industry well enough to avoid the continued exploitation of women.