Rofhiwa Mlilo is a 40-year-old single mother who sells sex for a living in a small town in South Africa. Unlike the alternative of picking fruit on local farms, sex work provides her with enough money to support her two children.

Mlilo, whose name I have changed for her protection, would prefer if her job selling sex was protected by law so that she could be sure to make it home safely to her children every night. Instead, she lives in constant danger of being harassed, arrested, or detained by police. The police abuse forces her into the shadows, where sex workers often face violence from male solicitors and less protection against HIV.

South African authorities are compromising the safety and wellbeing of thousands of women like Mlilo by treating sex work as a crime, we and a partner group have found. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Our findings give credence to a growing recognition around the world that decriminalizing sex work is an essential step toward gender equality.