Op-ed written by Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge was published on the Sunday Tribune on Sunday, May 19 2019

The trial of Philani Ntuli, the businessman accused of murdering 20 year old Siam Lee, was due to finally start on Thursday in Durban. As the defence was not ready it has been postponed once again. The full hearing is now due to take place at the end of July.

Lee was allegedly taken from a brothel masquerading as a massage parlour on the city’s Margaret Maytom Avenue by Ntuli in January last year. Following this he held her captive for more than a day at his home in Hillcrest, continued to beat her until she couldn’t move before setting her body on fire in a field in central KwaZulu-Natal. When she was found some hours later 90% of her body had been covered in burns. She was almost completely unrecognisable.

Ntuli is also charged with a litany of other charges related to Lee’s murder including robbery, reckless driving, failing to stop at the scene of an accident, fraud and unlawful possession of a firearm.

At a previous sitting, the court heard that in March 2016 Ntuli held another prostituted woman against her will at his home. He abused and raped her but she escaped. It is also alleged that he assaulted another woman, Lucky Mthembu, to whom he was engaged in 2015.

Most women who have survived the horrifically violent sex trade know the risk of violence even of murder – from a sex buyer is high. When a man pays for sex he often thinks he can do what he wants with you. There are few if any limits on his behaviour. Researchers have also found that male sex buyers are far more likely than other men to demonstrate a lack of empathy, to show traits of “hostile masculinity”, and are more likely to be violent – including a higher propensity to commit rape.

The South African Law Reform Commission (SALRC) recognises the high levels of violence within prostitution – and the clear inequality between the person paying for sex and the (usually) woman who is sold for it.  In 2017 issued a report supporting partial decriminalisation as one of two preferred options. This approach, also known as the Nordic or Equality Model, was pioneered by Sweden in 1999 and has since gained traction in Iceland, Norway, France, Northern Ireland, Canada, the Republic of Ireland and Israel.

Based on the principle of gender equality it decriminalises and mandates exiting services and support to prostituted women, while maintaining penalties on pimps, brothel-owners and sex buyers. This is the only approach which has widespread support from both women who have exited prostitution as well as mainstream feminist organisations.

Another alternative that pimps and brothel-owners openly support – total decriminalisation or legalisation – has not been endorsed by the SALRC because it fuels commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking.

We have seen Germany become a “giant Teutonic brothel” after it legalised all aspects of the sex trade in 2002. The University of Queensland found similar trends after ten years of legalised brothels in that part of Australia, where 90% of the sex trade continued to operate in the illegal sector. Following New Zealand’s decision to fully decriminalise the sex trade in 2003 very little has been done to stem the trend of children being trafficked into prostitution. Abuse is regularly concealed by the fact that activities such as pimping, brothel-keeping and buying sex are not regulated or monitored there. Former Prime Minister John Key has openly stated that he does not think the approach has worked.

Yet, despite the enormous evidence to the contrary our President Ramaphosa has still not rejected the failed experiment of full decriminalisation and come out in full support of the Equality Model, the only comprehensive policy in line with South Africa’s constitutional values of human dignity and gender equality.

My experience of working with survivors of prostitution has further convinced me that the Equality Model is the only solution that South Africa policymakers should consider. I hope to see our country respond to the SALRC report and become the first on this continent to enact a sex trade law that reflects the principles upon which our constitution is based.

Lee’s case has shocked South Africa. The graphic nature of the violence that she was forced to endure has woken even more of us up to the realities that prostituted women are forced to face. As survivor Mickey Meji says: “Prostituted women do not wake up one day and choose to be prostituted. Prostitution is chosen for us by our colonial past and apartheid, persistent structural inequalities, poverty, past sexual and physical abuse, the pimps who take advantage of us, and the men who pay to access our bodies for sexual gratification”.

The time has come for us to decide what future we want for ALL of South Africa’s women and girls.

Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge is a former deputy government minister and founder of Embrace Dignity, which works to end commercial sexual exploitation in South Africa.

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An open letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa regarding  “decriminalisation of sex work” in South Africa

Dear Mr. President,

As women with first-hand experience of being prostituted in South Africa, we the movement of the survivors of the system of prostitution – predominantly poor black women from disadvantaged backgrounds – wish to express our shock, concern and disappointment at your recent support of the full decriminalisation of the sex trade at the opening of the newly built court in Johannesburg.

You state in your address that all relevant stakeholders will be – or have already been – consulted in this process. However, we do not feel that our viewpoint has been clearly heard. Our leader and founder wrote an open letter to you last year, stating our concern regarding the adoption of a resolution by the African National Congress to work towards decriminalizing the exploitation of vulnerable women and girls- referred to by you as “sex work”. Then, on the 23rd August 2018, two hundred of us, representing hundreds of other women from seven provinces delivered a memorandum requesting that you look into this matter and that you meet with us so that we can further elaborate on our arguments. However, we have yet to receive a response.

We would like to bring to your attention the fact that prostituted women do not wake up one day and choose to be prostituted. Prostitution is chosen for us by our colonial past and apartheid, persistent structural inequalities, poverty, past sexual and physical abuse, the pimps who take advantage of us and the men who pay to access our bodies for the sexual gratification.  Many of us have been severely injured, raped, degraded and even murdered by the pimps who sell us in this very exploitative system, and by the men who pay for access to our bodies. We think by now you should have started to understand why it is that we are concerned, disappointed and shocked that you pronounced that your government intends to fully decriminalise all aspects of the sex trade.

We need some clarity from you, in terms of what it is exactly that you mean by decriminalization of “sex work”? Do you mean decriminalization of pimping, brothel keeping and sex buying? If this is the case, please do take note of the following scenarios and let us know how your proposed and or preferred law will prevent this from happening?

Twenty-three years ago, Theresa “Trish” van der Vint said good bye to other prostituted women who were sexually exploited alongside her daily until late afternoon in the three-lined stretch of Old Faure Road near Eerste Rivier in Cape Town. Most of the women who were older rushed home to be with their families but the then 16-year-old Trish stayed on the beat a bit longer. As dusk fell that Saturday, a man stopped his car near her and picked her up. Once she was in his car there was no way out.

A few hours later her body was found lying half-naked in the sand, covered with branches near a footpath near Macassar Beach. Her legs were spread apart, her skirt pulled up and her jacket twisted around her neck and face. She was the nineteenth recorded victim of the “Cape Prostitute serial killer”. Murdered on 15th May 1996, Trish was his last recorded victim and also the youngest.

Eight years ago, the boyfriend of a woman whose body was found stuffed in a drain near Wessels Street in Pretoria, suggested that Wendy Riketso could have been murdered by her Nigerian pimp, from whom she had run away. There were confirmations from others that the said pimp had been harassing her and had at several times attempted to kidnap her. She was reported to have been prostituted.

In April 2013, Nokuphila Khumalo, another woman who was reported to have been in prostitution, was beaten to death in Woodstock. Renowned artist Zwelethu Mthethwa has been convicted of her murder and it is claimed that he was a sex buyer.

On 18th August 2014, the headless body of a prostituted woman, Desiree Murugan, was found by municipal workers at Shallcross Stadium in Durban. It is reported that the four teenagers who were convicted of her murder had bought her for sex at the time and then murdered her. Since she was prostituted it was argued that she was an easy target for them.

As if all of this was not enough, in January 2018, another woman, twenty-year old Siam Lee went missing from what is reported to be a brothel in Durban North. Her charred body was found two days later on a farm in New Hanover. Philani Ntuli, the man accused of her murder, is reported to have been her last “client”. In fact, many women who are prostituted and members of KWANELE have since identified Philani as a sex buyer.

If your decriminalization law is implemented how can will this prevent cases similar to those reported here from happening? How will full decriminalization of the sex trade remove the permanent physical and psychological scars the prostitution system incurs on women? How will decriminalization teach men that women’s bodies are not for sale? Finally how will it assist South Africa achieve gender equality, dismantle patriarchy and end men’s violence on women?

Finally, we would like to bring your attention to the South African Law Reform Commission (SALRC) Report issued in 2017, which recommended that South Africa does not enact a law which fully decriminalises the sex trade. Instead, one of its two key policy recommendations was that the Republic follows the Nordic or Equality Model, which has been successful in ending the exploitative system of prostitution. It has gained momentum since it was first pioneered in Sweden in 1999, followed by Norway, Iceland, Canada, Northern Ireland, France, the Republic of Ireland and Israel. Founded on the principle of gender equality it recognises and reflects the inherent inequalities within prostitution and aims to protect the rights of prostituted individuals.

We look forward to your response on this very important issue and hope we can meet with you in person to discuss this further.



Mickey Meji                         Nonhlanhla Duma                 Nonhlanhla Mkhize             Dudu Ngwenya                   Yongama Vula
Assaria Sungano                Xoli Gwala                             Ntombikhona Mlondo          Xoliswa Gqabuza               Tamara Nkohla
Julia Kgatlhane                   Nonhlanhla Mkhize               Zonke Khawula                    Nomakhosi Maqabela        Nomhle Bengu
Linda Ketje                          Philile Ziqubu                       Thobile Mbhele                     Lisa Ayetuah                      Noluvuyo Vuthela
Babalwa Phuthumo             Nontando Ngcobo                 Nosisa Caluza                     Lumnka Nyarhashe           Nomvuyo Dlokwenu
Hilda Tlou                            Athini Shabalala                   Ntombenhle Buthelezi          Ntomnizandile Maweyi       Ncumisa Pondo
Sithembile Gumede            Fanele Mdletshe                   Nontsikelelo Madikazi           Thozama Mfuleni               Yonelisa Jack
Nompumelelo Limekhaya   Thembisile Mzolo                 Zandile Gumede                    Zingisa Hoyo                     Phumza Ngxeba
Zinhle Dlamini                     Mabongi Zikhale                  Thembi Dlamile                      Kelly Ngwenya                Nolukholo Dyantji
Mary Mkando                      Ayanda Mncwabe                Zandile Mlaba                        Pamela Qashani              Sizeka Nyeleka
Thulisile Khoza                   Khanyisile Molefe                 Mapule Dick                           Nontando  Nongwe          Zikhona Jawuka
Phindiswa Klaas                Sbongile Mbongwana           Phindile Sibiya                        Nolusindo Mfuleni            Ntombekhaya Khunjuzwa
Sphindile Cele                    Nandi Dlamini                       Nosihle Mthembu                    Faith Ncube                     Lwandile Somdaka
Pulani Lesole                      Nomusa Duma                     Sthembile Gumede                Nokuthula Qaqavu            Suzette Jacobs
Nolwazi Ngwenya               Zama Mthiyane                    Zandile Biyela                         Sindiswa Tiyane           Nandipha Maqabela
Dudu Manana                    Siziwe Mngwemba                Sphe Dhlomo                          Georgina Chima             Vuyiseka Tsetse
Delia Scheepers                 Hlengiwe Chili                       Nandi Bhebhe

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Having grown up in a racially segregated country like South Africa, it was somewhat challenging to offer sex services to people I was not familiar with. I used my body to be defiled by different men from all over the world for money. Those clients came in different shapes and sizes with different racial groups such as Asians,Indians,Whites and Blacks. They had different tastes and preferences some wanted very strange or odd services.
As I reflect on my experiences, I came to realisation that the sex industry is not as glamorous as it is projected by those who lure people into it. There is untold economic, emotional and physical strife that prostituted women experience. Clients treat  “sex workers” like objects and consequently ill-treat them badly. Entering prostitution is to slip from one world to another because I could see many girls losing all that they had because of drugs, some were brutally killed, raped and strangled and some died through drug overdose. The memories are always resurfacing for sometimes at night I would lie down and tears will be rolling on my cheeks thinking about the pain and the trauma of prostitution up to different scents and smells of all those clients and also a lack of self-worth. The journey I traversed was very thorny and I can never wish it for anyone. I may have come back alive but the scars run deep.
Prostitution undermines women’s rights to gender equality and dignity by commodifying the sex act and treating women as objects to be bought, sold and abused. All women in prostitution are marginalized and exploited, therefore prostitution cannot be considered as work as it is a structural economic and patriarchal form of violence against women. As a result of this most prostituted women always say that they would leave prostitution if given other options as they do not regard it as dignified and decent work. And all the “sex workers” who have indicated with a high level desire that they would be doing something else under different circumstances, women expressed the desire for skills development programmes, formal jobs and assistance in business start-ups.
Vera Qwesha is a former drug addict, survivor of prostitution and author of My Journey from Grass to Grace, her own autobiography. 
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I do not want my children to follow up my footsteps.

I got into the system of prostitution when I was 13 years of age to assist my mother who was also at the time in the sex trade to raise my four younger siblings. Even though my mother was in the sex trade, life was not easy and we struggled a lot hence I had to also stepped in and assisted.

After my mom passed away, my life became so difficult that I ended up marrying a person who was a thief.  Being married to a criminal was not easy at all, that is what most of us women in prostitution are exposed to; eventually my husband was murdered leaving me with children to take care of.

This whole situation forced me to go back again to the street to sell my body in order to take care of my children. Prostitution has undermined my dignity so much that I am not even respected and I’m called names such as marhosha –  that what women who sell their bodies are called , sefebe – a whore etc in front of my children.

For most women in prostitution including myself, prostitution is not a free choice but a choice some of us had to make because of circumstances and those vary but in my case, it was poverty and seeing my mother doing it.

My mother was in the sex trade for many years yet she died having nothing and I came out of it empty handed hence because of this my siblings didn’t managed to finish school and our mother left us homeless, it is definitely not a future we can offer our girls as a profession.

The system of prostitution must end now; we need to deal with our poverty and to protect our dignity now. The life I live is not a life I’m proud of, we face many challenges in the streets with the buyers. They beat us, murder us and rape us and we are afraid of going to the police because they also do not take us serious.

I was not able to give my children a straight answer when they wanted to know where I work, to make matters worse they are all girls. I still would not be able to give anyone a straight answer even if prostitution is decriminalized tomorrow because it is not work to be proud of.


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My name is Zenande I am from the rural areas in the Eastern Cape.

I entered into the sex exploitation industry in 2011. I needed money and I was hoping to save that money to return to Varsity as I dropped out due to financial constraints.

I was so young and much in demand. Yet it was always difficult for me to price myself in terms of the services I offered. I came up with a plan to make it easier for me I asked a veteran prostituted woman who was a roommate of mine to put up the prices and she did.

From the onset the rules that I set were not being adhered to by these many men I encountered. It really depended on the money and the fantasy they had and most times they would change from the initial agreement and did as they pleased.

My first violation would be when someone would ask me “uthengisa ngamalini ? “– meaning how much are you selling for?

My heart would throb as I couldn’t give selling my soul to the devil a price and that price would be so disgraceful with my street experience I guarantee that there’s no amount of money that can compensate one for sexual intercourse with unknown males.

The other challenge is the time frame because as long as the man hasn’t reached an orgasm then he can have sex with you for however long he wants. And then there’s that gentle reminder with piercing eyes that says I have paid for having sex with you therefore submit yourself and let me finish “ngikhokhile,ungangijarhi!”  – meaning I paid so don’t rush me! I’ve also experienced being beaten up, raped and money taken back when I failed to fulfil the needs of these men.

The last straw for me was when I had a client for the night who ordered me to go down on him without any protection. He refused to use a condom and kept on bragging to us about how well off he was. He took me and a friend for the night for R2000 each. So our lives were worth a mere R2000.

I had to run around trying to find pep and in every clinic I went to I was told I knew my risk when I started selling my body therefore I cannot get pep. I had to pretend I was mugged and raped; it was easy because I had a blue eye and a broken rib from the struggle with that man so I got my pep. I realised I’d rather remain uneducated or seek any other way than let these men bruise and break me. The fact remains I got bantu education and today my matric is stale as I now celebrate 18 years of matric and nothing else. I am one of the few survivors that have internal scars but HIV negative by the grace of God.

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Meet Our Intern: Savannah Estridge

Masters student and American citizen Savannah Estridge joined our team as an intern in June this year. Savannah is originally from Brooklyn, New York and is currently completing her Masters Degree in Global Affairs, concentrating on human rights and international law, at New York University.

Estridge has built up experience advocating for women’s rights through the non-profit sector by working for the United States Peace Corps in Fiji in the South Pacific. Her experience in working for women’s rights in Fiji inspired her to return to university and study human rights, with a particular focus on women’s rights.

“Savannah has been working with our public education team, designing awareness and prevention workshops and collecting data on the youth’s awareness of human trafficking and prostitution. We were pleased that Savannah could join us when we travelled to London to attend a meeting with Equality Now to design a strategy for advocating for the Equality Model Law to end prostitution in South Africa,” says Ms Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, the Executive Director of Embrace Dignity.

Estridge is a firm believer in the importance of advocating for women’s rights. She hopes to use the experience she gains while working with Embrace Dignity to work for other women’s rights organisations and hopefully one day for the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women).

Estridge will be working with Embrace Dignity’s team until November 2017.

“We are happy that she has joined our team,” adds Madlala-Routledge.

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Working with the youth to prevent sex trafficking

Ikamva Youth, an NGO that “equips learners from disadvantaged communities with the knowledge, skills, networks and resources to access tertiary education and/or employment opportunities once they matriculate”, recently invited Embrace Dignity to conduct two workshops on human trafficking. The workshops involved Survivors like Grizelda Grootboom who shared their personal stories in order to open up a dialogue about trafficking and prostitution for the learners.

Embrace Dignity also used the opportunity to gauge the effect of the presentation on those present and to collect data on the youth’s knowledge of sex trafficking and prostitution through pre- and post-assessments.

“We found that the presentation had an immediate effect on how the participants perceived trafficking and prostitution,” says Savannah Estridge, an intern at Embrace Dignity who was involved in running the training and conducting the assessments.

At the beginning of the first workshop, when learners were asked to indicate where they believed trafficking took place, only 27% of the learners said that it happened everywhere. That figure  increased to 100% – a massive 73% increase – after the presentation indicating that learners grasped the  message shared by Embrace Dignity that young people are especially vulnerable to sex trafficking and other forms of trafficking in society.

The second workshop focused on teaching learners prevention skills.

“When analysing learners’ responses on how people fall victim to trafficking, the internet or social media was not mentioned at all. Yet 19% of the respondents talked about falling victim to trafficking when walking down the road or getting into someone’s car, indicating that they  associated trafficking with being kidnapped,” says Estridge.

However, when asked what they had learned during the post-assessment, 11% of the learners mentioned that they now understood how individuals could become susceptible to sex trafficking through their online presence on social media platforms.

“This shows that Embrace Dignity is helping learners to realise that while they can fall victim to sex trafficking by being taken against their will while out in public, there are also a multitude of other ways for traffickers to find vulnerable youth. This may involve luring young persons into situations that the traffickers know will appeal to them  through the information they share on their online profiles – for example the opportunity to participate in a film shoot – but with the eventual purpose to traffic an unsuspecting young person,” says Duduzile Ndlovu, Embrace Dignity Coordinator: Public Education and Advocacy.

Estridge adds: “The goals of the workshops were to raise awareness and teach prevention skills. The data that was collected indicates that Embrace Dignity’s interaction with the youth is very valuable in achieving both of these objectives. There were significant changes in the pre- and post-assessments and participants really valued the opportunity to have a dialogue about an issue that they hear about daily.”

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Poverty-stricken Nontando forced into prostitution

written by Thabo Tshelane, social media and communications coordinator at Embrace Dignity

When *Nontando (*not her real name) heard that Ntombovuyo Mtamo (a prostituted women) had died while sleeping on Voortrekker Road in Bellville she thought about her own life.

“I don’t have an ID and haven’t been home for ten years,” she says, referring to Umtata, Eastern Cape where she is originally from.

“I could die any day and who would make sure that my family knows about my death?”

Nontando was very young when she left home and started selling sexual acts to truck drivers because she needed money.

“It was 1998 when I started selling sexual acts in the streets. I was so poor. At home, when my grandmother passed way, there was nobody to look after us. My father also died and we were three sisters,” she says.

Nontando later left Umtata in the Eastern Cape for Cape Town where she continued selling sexual acts. She had to find a way to cope with her new life though.

“When I started sleeping with men for money I didn’t feel anything. I would drink a lot to numb the feeling and put it all off my mind,” she says.

“I was always drunk when I went to bed so that I could forget everything. Before I was in prostitution I wasn’t drinking at all.”

Nontando is still selling sexual acts today even though she wants to quit.

“I am thinking about leaving prostitution but I’m uneducated. I didn’t finish high school and it’s not easy for me to find a job. This is the only way that I’m able to put bread on the table,” she says.

As a prostituted woman, she also harbours a lot of shame.

“I didn’t tell my family that selling my body for money. It’s not a nice job. You don’t want to tell anyone that you are a “prostitute”.”

“I live in Nyanga with two other women who are also in prostitution. People make nasty comments about us when they see us.”

She faces the same abuse from buyers and has also been in fights with other prostituted persons when drunk.

“If there were issues or arguments then it comes up especially when we are drunk. There are usually misunderstandings on the streets.”

In the last few years, she says, her earnings have dropped considerably.

“Money has also become scarce. Sometimes I make only R200 a weekend and see two or three buyers. What I used to make sleeping with truck drivers in a day I can’t even make now.”

“You end up selling your body for any money that comes your way, instead of going home with nothing. But it’s exhausting. Sometimes when you get into bed you want to sleep forever.”

Many prostituted women are also severely disrespected by buyers.

“Buyers have robbed me and stripped me of everything I have. Some buyers have raped me and others beat me. When you enter a car you don’t know if you will come back alive or not,” says Nontando.

The disrespect she suffers at the hands of buyers are further compounded by how she is treated by the police.

“When you say you have been raped, they [the police] ask how have you been raped if you are sleeping with everybody. It’s better not to go to the police. Even if you go, there is no assistance. The police would laugh at you and mock you when you need help. They would say, ‘Go back to the streets, you are a “prostitute”’.”

Romantic relationships with men, she says, are also near impossible when you sell sexual acts.

“It’s better not to tell your boyfriend you’re in sex trade. I would lose my dignity and he would look at me differently. So I prefer that he doesn’t know.”

“But guys find out so it’s difficult to have a relationship. You rather leave before the guy finds out what you’re doing.”

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Join us in honouring all women in August

Photo credit:

August is Women’s Month in South Africa and while we firmly believe that we need more than a women-focused month to empower women in this country, we are also taking the opportunity to shed light on the issues that prostituted and trafficked women face on a daily basis.

The Embrace Dignity team has been hard at work planning its Women’s Month programme to commemorate an important month in the country’s political calendar.

“At the same,” says Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, Executive Director of Embrace Dignity, “we are excited about the partnerships we are developing in the process.”

On Women’s Day on Wednesday, 09 August Embrace Dignity, the South African Faith and Family Institute (SAFFI), and Woman Zone CT as well as countless individuals from community-based and non-governmental organisations across Cape Town joined forces with Artscape Theatre to participate in the annual Women’s Humanity Walk from the Artscape Theatre complex to St George’s Cathedral. The theme for this year was Uniting Cape Town Against Gender Based Violence. Embrace Dignity was one of more than 100 stakeholders who had information stalls at the Artscape Theatre complex on the day.

Later on the same day, Embrace Dignity in collaboration with Iziko Museums of South Africa commemorated Women’s Day with a panel discussion entitled The Exploitative Male Gaze on Women’s Bodies. The panel discussion will be repeated on Friday, 25 August from 15:00 to 16:30 at the Castle of Good Hope to allow more people to attend and participate.

“The discussion will explore the experiences of women in industries such as the film, modelling and sex industries that are driven and perpetuated by the exploitative male gaze. Through critical engagements with our panellists we hope to highlight some of the challenges and perhaps come up with solutions,” adds Madlala-Routledge.

Ms Akuol De Mabior, an Embrace Dignity board member, feminist filmmaker and ex-model; Mr Jannous Aukema, a fashion photographer and freelance filmmaker; and Ms Mickey Meiji, a Survivor of prostitution, the founder of the Kwanele Survivor Movement, and Civic Advocacy Coordinator at Embrace Dignity will participate in the panel discussion.

On Friday, 11 August, Embrace Dignity will launch Embracing Dignity: A photographic exhibit by American documentary photographer Alexandra Deitz at the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town. The Embracing Dignity project is a collaborative endeavour between the artist and Sisters from Embrace Dignity. Sisters is the collective name adopted by the women that we assist to exit prostitution. The American music trio, The BETTY Effect, will provide musical entertainment on the day. The BETTY Effect uses “music and performance techniques to help women and girls worldwide communicate and connect for personal power, social progress and peace”.

“The pictures will be exhibited for the entire month of August.”

On Tuesday, 15 August, Embrace Dignity and City Mission will participate in a panel discussion at the Cape Castle. The discussion will highlight the differences and challenges faced by women exiting prostitution and men exiting a life of crime. City Mission provides support to ex-offenders who want to start with a clean slate after incarceration.

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The Global Sex Trade: Criminalise Buying, Decriminalise Selling

Bernedette Muthien (centre), an independent facilitator and researcher, recently addressed a Roundtable on Gender which formed part of the Parliament on South Africa’s High Level Panel on Legislative Review in Johannesburg. With her here is Ms Akuol De Mabior, an Embrace Dignity board member.

On 27 July Ms Bernedette Muthien[1], an independent facilitator and researcher, and Ms Duduzile Ndlovu, Embrace Dignity’s Public Education and Advocacy Coordinator, addressed a Roundtable on Gender which formed part of the Parliament of South Africa’s High Level Panel on Legislative Review in Johannesburg. This is a transcript of the presentation[2] made by the two women. The presentation is necessarily simplified and brief to conform to this specific format.

Embrace Dignity is an NGO concerned with realising Constitutional rights, especially pertaining to gender equity, ending gender-based violence (GBV), ensuring human dignity and human security.

The presentation discusses two existing laws related to the selling and buying of sex so as to locate these laws in South Africa’s Constitution and other gender-related legislation and policy, along with possible legislative review or new legislation, underpinned by a few international examples.

The two laws relating to the selling and buying of sex are:

  • The Sexual Offences Act of 1957, which criminalises the sellers of sex but not the buyers of sex.
  • The Jordan case of 2002 led to the Amendment Act of 2007, which then criminalised the buying of sex along with the selling of sex.

The 2007 Amendment Act assumes that sellers are equal to buyers, traffickers and pimps. The majority of sellers are women, supposedly equal to the majority men buyers and dealers. Most sellers of sex are poor women, while the men buyers and traders either have economic means to purchase sex, and/or financially benefit from the sex trade. Hence criminalising both buyers and sellers assumes equality of choice, agency and socio-economic status between majority poor women sellers, and the majority male buyers and traders of at least some economic means. In fact, the sellers in Africa are majority black (of colour or not-white), destitute, often trafficked within South Africa, Southern Africa, Africa and the world. These women are stigmatised and abused, whereas buyers and traders are favoured, including by the police, who usually arrest the seller but not the buyer, and at times rape and otherwise violate the seller, thus perpetuating societal gender inequity and gender violence.

These two existing laws of 1957 and 2007 address only supply, and not the demand, of sex. This demand is based on gender inequity, social inequity, economic inequity, and their intersections. What is needed is legislation to shrink the demand.

South Africa’s Constitution aims to protect especially women, and as a country we are hence obliged to provide exit, including skills training, job opportunities, education, and destigmatisation. The Criminal Justice System needs training, for example the Domestic Violence Act of 1999 which stipulates the obligations of all parties, including the police to counsel and support the complainant.

While progressive, the 2007 Amendment Act shows no shift to criminalise demand. A 2009 article shows that of 3 385 sellers arrested, only 10 buyers were arrested over the same time period[1].

There are two arguments to more effectively address demand, to fulfill our Constitutional and other imperatives for gender equality, human dignity and human security:

1. Clearer amendments to existing legislation while being aware of current challenges of implementing existing legislation; and
2. New legislation focused on eradicating demand.

In the Republic of Ireland the activities of the sex seller is entirely removed from the very definition of sex selling, so that the seller is not illegal or criminalised or stigmatised. This flips inequality on its head, instead criminalising and stigmatising demand (the buyers, pimps and traffickers).

There is a case for new legislation, and a repeal of pre-existing laws especially Apartheid-era laws, to pull all related existing laws into one document or vehicle, and to be unambiguous, including on prescriptions like the Domestic Violence Act of 1999 which obliges, for example the police to be suitably trained and to counsel and support the complainant.

Whether amending existing legislation or promulgating new legislation, the demand needs to be addressed and should be in keeping with the country’s Constitution and other legislation and policy.

Countries that have worked towards eradicating demand include Canada, France, Iceland, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, Norway, and Sweden since 1999, with more countries joining each year. The legislation is variously called the Nordic Law, due to the majority Scandinavian countries leading the way; the Sex Buyer Law because the buying rather than the selling of sex is criminalised; and the Equality Law because it addresses gender and socio-economic inequity.

With these laws the buying of sex is criminalised, along with criminalising everyone that benefits from the sex industry including pimps, brothel keepers, traffickers and others. Simultaneously selling of sex is decriminalised, with support and exit services offered to sex sellers.

As an aside, one cannot but acknowledge that also addicts of sex and pornography, whose addiction is a global challenge underpinning the demand created by the sex trade, need support and services to rehabilitate.

The underlying assumption is that without demand, there is no need for supply. Besides, is South Africa with its groundbreaking Constitution a country that sells vulnerable girls and women and dehumanises them as slavery did? Or are we a country that strives to offer decent job opportunities, human dignity and human security? Hence we need to transform our mindsets and attitudes in line with our country’s Constitution, legislation and policy.

Sweden, since promulgating its legislation in 1999, has seen a radical decrease of street prostitution of between 30 and 50%, and a concomitant decrease in up to 80% of buyers[1]. This has of course resulted in an associated rise in sex selling in countries adjacent to Sweden.

Indeed, instead of levelling stigma against sex sellers, the law has created a shift in public opinion so that the buying and buyers of sex are now increasingly stigmatised, in a similar way to how rapists and batterers are stigmatised.

Since human and women trafficking is usually inextricably part of international organised crime (including drugs and armaments), Sweden has seen a decrease in these forms of international organised crimes compared with other countries.

Sweden can be contrasted with Germany, which has chosen legalisation (with regulation), with an attendant rise in trafficking and other forms of criminality. This is reminiscent of South Africa during the 1990s with our porous borders resulting in an influx of global mafia, of corporatised exploitation and crime, which we are still combating at present.

The ultimate aim of this proposed legislation, to criminalise buying and decriminalise selling, is of course to end the commercial sex trade in its entirety, since it is rooted in gender and socio-economic inequity, and since it contravenes South Africa’s Constitution and other legislation and policy.

These provisions to eradicate the sex trade relate directly to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the African Union’s Agenda 2063, and South Africa’s NDP and government’s Medium Term Strategic Framework (MTSF) with its 14 Outcomes. South Africa is compelled to regularly report against all these international, regional and national policies, which the Department of Planning Monitoring and Evaluation (DPME) is working on simplifying and streamlining.

The appropriate United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) pertaining to eradicating the sex trade include at least half of the 17 Goals:

Goal Number Description
Goal 1 No poverty.
Goal 2 Zero hunger.
Goal 3 Good health and wellbeing.
Goal 4 Quality education.
Goal 5 Gender equality: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. While Women and Gender Equality is a specified Goal, it is also a critical, highlighted cross-cutting issue.
Goal 8 Decent work and economic growth: Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.
Goal 10 Reduced inequalities.
Goal 16 Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions: Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.

The African Union’s Agenda 2063 with its seven associated Aspirations, of which six are relevant to ending the sex trade:

Goal Number Description
Aspiration 1 A prosperous Africa based on inclusive growth and sustainable development.
This includes:

  • Eradicating poverty and achieving high standards of living for all.
  • Ensuring well-educated citizens and a skills revolution underpinned by science, technology and innovation.
  • Structurally transformed economies to create growth, decent jobs and economic opportunities for all.
  • Modernised agriculture.
  • Preservation of the environment and ecosystems.
Aspiration 2 An integrated continent, politically united and based on the ideals of pan-Africanism and the vision of the African renaissance:

  • Africa will be united, an integrated continent, with seamless borders.
  • All remnants of colonialism ended by 2020.
  • All forms of oppression ended.
Aspiration 3 An Africa of good governance, democracy, respect for human rights, justice and the rule of law:

  • Africa will be a continent where democratic values, cultural practices, universal principles of human rights, gender equality, justices and the rule of law are entrenched.
  • Africa will have capable institutions and transformative leadership at all levels.
Aspiration 4 A peaceful and secure Africa:

  • By 2020 all guns must be silent.
  • There must be entrenched human rights, democracy, gender equality, inclusion and peace.
  • There will be mechanisms to promote and defend the continent’s security and interests.
Aspiration 5 An Africa with a strong cultural identity, common heritage, values and ethics.
Aspiration 6 An Africa where development is people-driven, unleashing the potential of its women and youth:

  • People-centred and caring.
  • Putting children first.
  • Empowered women who play their rightful role in all spheres of life.
  • Full gender equality in all spheres of life.
  • An engaged and empowered youth.

So too South Africa’s National Develop Plan (NDP) and government’s implementation plan, the Medium Term Strategic Framework (MTSF), 11 of 14 Outcomes directly related to ending the sex trade:

Outcome Number Description
Outcome 1 Quality basic education.
Outcome 2 Long and healthy life.
Outcome 3 All people are and feel safe.
Outcome 4 Decent employment through inclusive growth.
Outcome 5 A skilled and capable workforce.
Outcome 7 Vibrant, equitable, sustainable rural communities.
Outcome 8 Sustainable human settlements and improved quality of household life.
Outcome 9 Responsive, accountable, effective and efficient local government.
Outcome 12 Efficient, effective and development-oriented public service.
Outcome 13 Comprehensive, responsive and sustainable social protection system.
Outcome 14 Social cohesion and nation building.

Thus creating an enabling environment for ending the sex trade runs across most of the UN’s SDGs, the AU’s Agenda 2063, as well as South Africa’s NDP and MTSF, including combating poverty, providing job opportunities, education, social protection, health and wellbeing, housing, and efficient local and national government. Hence ending the sex trade is critical for South Africa’s achievements related to these Outcomes, Aspirations and Goals.

Ending the sex trade would be achieved through the proposed progressive legislation that criminalises buying and decriminalises selling of sex, which can then form part of South Africa’s impressive arsenal of laws against gender-based violence and violence against women and children, including our Domestic Violence Act of 1999, to show perpetrators that South Africa is serious about fighting the vicious wars against our most vulnerable, impoverished girls and women: there simply is no excuse for abuse.

[1] Bernedette Muthien is an independent facilitator and researcher who has worked in local and international NGO management, academia and government. For more on Muthien visit

[2] A special word of thanks to Ms Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, the co-founder and Executive Director of Embrace Dignity, and Ms Marthe Muller, a board member of Embrace Dignity, for their input in compiling the presentation.

[3] Oppenheimer, E. (2014). Prostitution as the Exploitation of Women and a Violation of Women’s Human Rights. Masters thesis. University of Cape Town.

[4] Raymond, Janice G. (2003). “Ten Reasons for Not Legalizing Prostitution And a Legal Response to the Demand for Prostitution”. Journal of Trauma Practice, 2. pp 315-332; and in Farley, M. (Ed.). (2003). “Prostitution, Trafficking and Traumatic Stress”. Binghamton: Haworth Press.

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