Will SA be the first African country to pass effective laws to end prostitution?

While it is widely acknowledged that existing laws governing prostitution in South Africa have done little for the well-being of people in prostitution in this country, it has still taken several years for any progress to be made regarding the amendment of laws pertaining to the sex trade.

While the release of the South African Law Reform Commission’s (SALRC)’s report with recommendations on changing the existing laws are welcomed, the recommendation by the SALRC of criminalisation with diversion is a weak attempt to provide some support for those who wish to exit but still does not address the unspeakable violence that those selling sex – the vast majority of whom are women and girls – will continue to face going forward.

In this country, those who are bought and sold for sex – many of whom are victims of sex trafficking – are regularly targeted by police. Little to no government support is given to those who wish to exit prostitution and although women regularly enter the sex trade as children, no connection is made by policymakers that the same women who are treated as criminals after they turn 18 are also victims who have been exploited for sex since they were first prostituted as minors. In effect these women are victims one day and criminals the next.

For women like Grizelda Grootboom, who was trafficked into the sex trade, the SALRC’s recommendations do not bode well. Grootboom, who is the author of Exit!, has over the last few years become the familiar face of the ordeal that women who are trafficked face. In her book she chronicles her entrapment in Johannesburg over a period of 12 years. During this time Grizelda faced extreme violence – often from police officers too – was gang-raped, and eventually fell pregnant. One night, while asleep in her madam’s brothel, she was drugged by the same madam who then proceeded to forcibly remove Grizelda’s fetus from her womb.

At present, South Africa’s 1957 Sexual Offences Act and related by-laws criminalise all aspects of the sex trade and ignore the power imbalance between those who are bought and sold for sex and those who buy and make money from the sexual exploitation of others. Similar laws exist across the African continent.

For several years now, the SALRC has committed to issuing this report. From various committee meetings on the issue – including a Deputy Minister of Justice briefing last November – it has been clear that the SALRC recognises prostitution in South Africa as “a very complex intersection of social and economic factors in which poverty, unemployment and inequality were key drivers”. We agree. In its research, the SALRC has considered various approaches to updating its laws – many of which have already been applied elsewhere.

It is therefore disappointing that the Commission has not recommended the legislative approach that has shown the most success in recent years and which is supported by “sex trade” survivors and women’s rights groups around the world. Spearheaded by Sweden in 1999 and followed by Norway, Iceland, Canada, Northern Ireland, France and the Republic of Ireland, the Nordic or Equality Model as it is known, decriminalises and provides exiting services and support to those bought and sold for sex, while criminalising pimping, the operation and ownership of brothels and the buying of sex. It is supported by both the European Union and the Council of Europe and has been gaining significant traction around the globe.

Also referred to as the “third way”, it is a creative alternative in the middle ground between the failed legalisation approach used in Germany and full criminalisation, which is in place in South Africa. It recognises the high level of violence within the sex trade and responds to the human rights of people in prostitution, by focusing on the demand, thereby curtailing the extent of both prostitution and trafficking.

According to research from France earlier this year, CAP International found that 937 arrests of buyers of sex were made in the first year of the new law. No arrests were made of women in prostitution after mid-April last year – down from approximately 1 500 arrests in previous years. €4.8 million was provided by the French government in exiting services and support in the same time. Critics who had previously stated that such a law could not be effectively implemented in France have been proven wrong.

There are positive reports from Sweden too, the pioneer of this approach. Simon Häggström, from the Prostitution Unit of Stockholm’s police force, has been very vocal about how it has turned Sweden into a “bad market” for traffickers and pimps. People in prostitution now view the country as safer compared to elsewhere. The number of sex buyers has also fallen in recent years, mainly due to the fact that they are afraid of being arrested. In addition, research shows that only 7.9% of Swedish men bought sex in 2008 compared to 13.9% in 1996. The Swedish law was introduced in 1999.

Meanwhile other countries have experimented with regulating or legalising the entire sex trade – including pimping, the operation and ownership of brothels and the buying of sex. In 2001 the Netherlands was the most high profile example of this, followed by Germany one year later. Both countries have had damning results. The scale of the trade itself and sex trafficking have increased. Germany has been described as a “giant teutonic brothel” which raises tax income on the exploitation of women. Only 44 out of the 400 000 who sell sex in Germany have registered for welfare benefits. Women are marketed as commodities that can be bought at a flat rate along with beer and bratwurst. The fact that women are effectively treated as produce is deeply offensive to those bought for sex, but it also affects how all women are valued and treated in the general population.

The full legalisation or decriminalisation of the sex trade has meant that pimps and brothel operators and owners can run their establishments with full impunity, while no exiting services or support are given to those trapped in prostitution. It is assumed that this highly exploitative industry will somehow self-regulate. It doesn’t. Instead, it conceals the extreme violence experienced by those selling sex.

In 2007, a study by Germany’s Federal Ministry concluded that almost every single woman in prostitution had suffered sexual harassment and physical violence and that half of those interviewed had symptoms of severe depression. In another report by American clinical psychologist Melissa Farley, 68% of a group of women selling sex in San Francisco met the criteria for post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is higher than most studies on PTSD levels in war veterans.

The South African context is one where violence against women is widespread. We are a country that knows a lot about inequality. Our Constitution also supports an approach to sex trade legislation which is consistent with the Equality Model.

At a moment in our country’s history, when South African society and government is starting to show signs of uniting against men’s violence against women and girls, we need more every day activists campaigning for the rights of women and girls being prostituted and trafficked for sex.

Prostitution helps perpetuate men’s violence against women and girls by objectifying women and undermining gender equality. Prostitution perpetuates and entrenches patriarchy while patriarchy perpetuates and entrenches prostitution – a vicious cycle.

It is my hope – and that of the sex trade survivors we work with at Embrace Dignity – that the SALRC report becomes a central discussion point in a society where violence against women and girls is at risk of becoming normalised. The release of the report itself is good news, especially for those organisations, individuals and activists working against this normalisation and the sanitisation of an oppressive and exploitative system. Embrace Dignity, Donor Direct Action and our partners look forward to continuing to educate and persuade South Africans of the need to deal with prostitution in this country though the lens of human rights. Women and girls like Grizelda have been left without any support for far too long already. As a former government minister and lifelong advocate for women’s rights, I personally want to be proud of our country’s commitment to this issue and hope we will set a positive precedent for other African countries to follow.

Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge is the Executive Director of Embrace Dignity, a South African, feminist and human rights advocacy NGO that helps women exit prostitution and sex trafficking. Embrace Dignity the South African partner of the international women’s group Donor Direct Action.

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