For decades my sisters and brothers in the sex industry have been battling to get their rights recognised and make the decriminalisation of sex work a reality. As we approach the general election, we want to see politicians engage on this issue and stand up for change.

I keep fighting because I have seen leaders in the past make brave decisions that might offend the “morality” of some but protect the vulnerable and marginalised. Abortion is no longer criminalised and nor are same-sex relationships. Grassroots activism and politicians who listened to the realities of hardship and allowed themselves to be moved by facts have made my country fairer. It is high time we end abuse and pain for sex workers too. Decriminalising sex work should be on the election agenda. Our politicians have promised changes but have not followed through. 

For many years my colleagues and I, together with other human rights activists, have documented abuses against sex workers. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard about unlawful arrests or shaming behaviour and sexual abuse by some police officers, pimps and clients.

Almost every sex worker, whether on the streets or in brothels, has a story of being attacked, robbed or raped by men pretending to be clients. But because sex work is criminalised in SA, sex workers can’t report these abuses to the police, nor can they unite to invest in and create a safe place to work.

Sex workers want to work with the police. Collaboration would improve their own safety and that of others, including those who are under-age yet sexually exploited. We want to be able to keep our eyes and ears open on the streets and make sure that anyone who forces men, women or children to sell sex faces arrest.

Almost everyone sex worker-led organisations Sweat and Sisonke works with is a parent. Often these are single parents who not only support themselves but are breadwinners for extended families. Like most parents they are hard-working and want their children to be safe. They go to work every day to put food on the table, keep their children in school or enable them to enrol at university or attain other goals. They want to be active in putting a stop to the trafficking of children and end violence against women.

Decriminalising sex work would not only help end painful stigma associated with it, but would help mitigate the HIV/Aids pandemic in our country. While we have made important progress in reducing rates of HIV in the general population, as well as key risk populations such as gay men, transgender women or people who inject drugs, sex workers remain much more at risk.

Unless sex workers can make use of their constitutional right and freely access health care without being shamed, their health-care issues, in particular screening for cancer and HIV, cannot be addressed. When President Cyril Ramaphosa launched the national sex worker HIV/Aids plan in March 2016 in his role as chair of the SA National Aids Council, he did so to affirm “the right of all South Africans to life, dignity and health, regardless of their occupation and sexual orientation and regardless of their circumstances”. The plan was to ensure sex workers had access to HIV testing and treatment to better prevent further infections.

Many of our decisionmakers have no idea what it might be like to be at the mercy of the police because you are a single mum working as a sex worker to make sure your children have food, clothes and a better education than they themselves got. Or to be deprived of dignity and your constitutional rights because of the work you do. We want to see leaders emerge who come and talk with us, to hear and see for themselves.

As Ramaphosa said, nobody should be deprived of his or her  right to life, dignity and health just for being because they are poor, marginalised or stigmatised. Whoever wins the election or a place in parliament should be guided by evidence and SA’s constitution when making legislative decisions.

• Buthelezi is national co-ordinator of the Sisonke National Sex Workers Movement in SA.