CAPE TOWN — South Africa’s national strategic plan for HIV prevention, care and treatment for sex workers was lauded on Tuesday by Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria executive director Mark Dybul, who said the programme was a model for the rest of the world.

The plan demonstrated "what needs to be done, not only in South Africa but everywhere," Mr Dybul said in an speech during one of the sessions of the International Conference on AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Diseases in Africa — the biggest AIDS conference in Africa.

He said the comprehensive plan developed by the South African National Aids Council (Sanac) showed "remarkable leadership and (was) a flagship of how we must respond not only on this continent but around the world".

The plan aims to increase HIV treatment for the estimated 153,000 sex workers in South Africa (0,9% of the female population), reduce the violence and human rights abuses perpetrated against them and to promote their wellbeing.

It was developed after intense consultation with government departments and nongovernmental organisations, and on the basis of the deliberations of a symposium held last year.

The plan involves a significant scaling up of a comprehensive HIV prevention package, improving services, reducing the discrimination against sex workers and mobilising resources.

Mr Dybul said it was "appalling" that sex workers were 12 times less likely to receive antiretroviral treatment than other people. He said their rights had to be respected and they had to be brought into the human family and given choices regarding what to do with their lives.

Sanac CEO Fareed Abdullah said in the foreward to the plan document that addressing the health of sex workers was "crucial to our plans to combat the spread of HIV" in South Africa as they were most at risk of acquiring HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. It was estimated that sex workers, their sexual partners and clients accounted for 20% of all new HIV infections in South Africa.

The conference heard that the South African Law Reform Commission is investigating the possible decriminalisation of prostitution, a major issue for sex workers. Criminalisation means sex workers are open to abuse by the police, and are denied access to justice and health services. Prostitution in South Africa, as in many other countries, is a criminal offence.

The African National Congress Women’s League and the Commission for Gender Equality both support the legalisation of sex work.

Sanac’s Coceka Noguduka said the lack of access by sex workers to health services undermined South Africa’s programmes to reduce the incidence of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

South Africa has one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world. According to Ms Nogukuka, HIV prevalence among female sex workers aged 15-49 years was 69% versus 25% amongst other women.

In terms of the plan, dedicated clinics would be set up for sex workers in areas where they were concentrated.

Another member of Sanac’s secretariat, Nditsheni Mungoni, said the organisation was also concerned that sex workers faced continual abuse by the police and had difficulties gaining access to justice.

"There is a process of reforming the law on criminalisation, which is a good step forward though we don’t know what the outcome will be," he said.