The South African government has introduced a plan to decriminalize prostitution, hoping to combat the growing violence against women.
The offer and use of sexual services will no longer be treated as a crime, according to the legislation presented by the Justice Department.
According to associations, the country has about 150,000 prostitutes.
"It is hoped that decriminalization will reduce human rights violations against sex workers," Justice Minister Ronald Lamola said at a press briefing on Friday ( December 9).
"It would also allow for better access to care and protection for sex workers, better working conditions and less discrimination and stigma," he continued.
South Africa, one of the countries with the world's largest HIV epidemic, has been hit by a wave of violence against women.
According to police figures released in November, the number of rapes and sexual assaults increased by 13% between 2017-2018 and 2021-2022. A rape is reported to the police every 12 minutes, not counting all those that are never reported.
Murders of women jumped 52% in the first three months of the year compared to the same period last year, according to South African President Cyril Ramaphosa.
"If sex workers are no longer labelled as criminals, they will be able to work much better with the police to combat violence," wrote the prostitutes' rights group SWEAT on Facebook, hailing the bill as "incredible news."
Some recent incidents have shocked the nation, including a crime spree that included the gang rape of eight women in July and the discovery of half a dozen bodies, some believed to be missing prostitutes, in a Johannesburg building in October.
South Africa's post-apartheid constitution is one of the most liberal in the world, allowing progressive laws on abortion and gay marriage, but sex workers have long suffered from stigma.
President Cyril Ramaphosa recently ruled that gender-based violence should be considered the main "pandemic" affecting the country, as not a day goes by without new "horrific" crimes being reported in the media.
The bill, which has been released for public consultation, deals only with decriminalization and does not regulate the sex industry, which the justice minister said would be addressed at a later date.
Parliament must then approve the bill, a process that will take several months.