“I support the Abolitionist Equality Law because I don’t want to end up dead in a ditch” by Mampho

The article is part of our Kwanele Survivor Speak series where Kwanele survivor movement members share their lived experience of violence and exploitation in the system of prostitution. 

My name is Mampho I am 25 years old from Free State. I am a second born at home. I have three brothers and my mom passed away when I was in Grade 4 and I was 10 years at the time. I ran away after 2 years of staying with my dad and stepmother because my dad was very abusive. My dad was a monster who always highlighted our naughtiness and we would sleep outside for days as he was not home as he worked at Doornkop mine in Johannesburg. I fled to Johannesburg at the age of 13 years.

Life was hard in the streets so I had to make a living. I had to make sure I survived. I know how it feels to go to jail just for a meal and a safe place to sleep. I was homeless and I stayed in the railway at Lenasia till 16 years then I started selling my body. Due to my age I did not ask much, the men were telling me what they want and often refused to use condoms and diverted from the agreements we would normally have before sex. I then found out that I am HIV positive and had to hide it from the other girls fearing that they will tell “clients”.

I started taking ARVs medication but that didn’t help because Metro Police often chased us all over the city and my medication would get lost. I tried going to adult school but I could not do my matric cause I do not have an ID. I have looked for jobs till this day but there’s absolutely nothing. I am now staying at the nearby informal settlement and make a living by selling atchaar, bunny chow and cigarettes. I support the Abolitionist Equality Law because I don’t want to end up dead in a ditch somewhere nor do I want any women to go through that. A lot of prostituted women have been killed by the after effects of cold weathers in their bodies as we used to sleep outside. We also roam with violent truck drivers from point A to B. Lastly the sex buyers are violent and they kill us without any mercy it’s like we are not human. Majority of us do not even have identity documents although we are South African. We are a forgotten population and most organisations only serve us with condoms and lubricants and encourage to keep this violent inhumane lifestyle.

I need a dignified work and opportunities so that I can go back to the Free state. As a result of rape on the streets, I have a daughter now. I cry every day at the thought of her falling into a trap that is the system of prostitution. I have been raped, beaten up and called names. I have also explored with drugs and have landed in jail for petty crimes just to run away from the cold and cruel street life. I do not want the decriminalisation of the system of prostitution and I do not want prostitution to be called “sex work” as it is not work at all. The sex buyers have no respect for us as women. I exited the system of prostitution after I was beaten to a pulp by a white sex buyer for refusing to blow job him without a condom and it was only because I had mouth sores and I wanted to protect us both. I got kicked and beaten up by big boots and I was afraid of that man he was heavy and he told me the police will not believe me because I’m just a whore.  I am still traumatized by that to this day. 

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Our 2020 achievements to date

In the first half of the year, Embrace Dignity has been involved in a range of activities and have reached a number of milestones as well.


Embrace Dignity has attended and participated in the following key strategic engagements:

  • A webinar on Cross-Linkages between Human Trafficking and Pornography: Myth or Reality? which was organised by the OSCE office for democratic institutions and human rights and moderated by Tatiana Kotlyarenko, ODIHR Adviser on anti-human trafficking issues on 4 May 2020.
  • The virtual roundtable of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) which was held on 30 April 2020 and brought together survivor leaders from Argentina, the Netherlands, South Africa and the USA to discuss the effects of the global health crisis (COVID-19) on women in the sex trade. Mickey Meji was part of the panel and she spoke about how COVID-19 has affected prostituted women in South Africa.
  • On 13 March 2020 Embrace Dignity was part of the stakeholder consultation group on the National Gender Machinery Framework Consultation before the framework’s submission to cabinet for approval.
  • From 29 February to 2 March 2020, Embrace Dignity attended the CSW64 Consultation Meeting: Generation Equality in Boksburg to prepare the delegates for the main meeting in New York.
  • Embrace Dignity attended the Consultative Conference on Beijing +25-Pre CSW 64: Peaceful Societies, Access to Justice and Freedom from Violence from 10-12 February 2020 at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology in Bellville. The event was hosted by Ilitha Labantu. Embrace Dignity partook in a panel discussion and facilitated a discussion group on the achievements by government and challenges with regards to the rights to bodily autonomy and reproductive rights.
  • Embrace Dignity was part of the Generation Equality Task Team and participated in the drafting of the addendum on the South African Report Pre-CSW 64.


Embrace Dignity endorsed an Open letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa calling for support for NGOs during this COVID-19 pandemic which was organised by Marc Lubner, Co-Founder and Executive Chairman of the Smile Foundation and CEO of Afrika Tikkun, Hedley Lewis, CEO of the Smile Foundation, Kelly du Plessis, CEO of Rare Diseases South Africa NPC, Lauren Pretorius, CEO of Campaigning For Cancer and Apex Leader at Community Constituency Covid-19 Front, and Cassey Chambers, Operations Director of the South Africa Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG).


The key role of the Embrace Dignity Board is to control and manage the affairs of the organisation. Embrace Dignity currently has 12 Board members.

The following Board members recently joined the Embrace Dignity family: Ms Linda Nodada (Chairperson of the Board), Dr Marcel van der Watt, and Ms Pam Ndaba. You can visit our Board members page to see their bios there.


The ultimate goal of the Coalition for the Abolition of Prostitution in Africa (CAPA) is to abolish the system of prostitution through the enforcement of the Abolitionist Equality Law in African countries as part of the global abolitionist movement. To date the CAPA charter has been signed by 350 individuals, with 129 signatures obtained online and 221 at events.


As an organisation, Embrace Dignity is committed to providing support to prostituted persons who have been negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Embrace Dignity has provided support through the distribution of food assistance parcels to help prostituted persons, partner organisations and other members of civil society, including students in tertiary institutions who have no financial support or income during this challenging time.


We bolstered our capacity by appointing a Parliamentary Liaison Officer, Ursula Kotelana, effective from 4 May 2020. We are excited about this appointment and we look forward to the contribution she will make in growing our organisation.


Embrace Dignity is currently working on a full database of exit service providers to further strengthen our Exit Programme.

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Message from our Executive Director

Embrace Dignity, like many other NGOs, currently finds itself in the middle of a worldwide health crisis that requires organisations to manage change and also draw on hope and the opportunities that has been unveiled by this crisis. 

When we started the year, we had no idea of the looming crisis brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has impacted on all of us globally. We have had to adapt our plans in response to the new conditions of working remotely and to ensure that operations continue. 

For us, this is a time of transition and change. As the founders of Embrace Dignity, Jeremy Routledge and I have taken the decision to retire and exit an organisation that we established and nurtured over many years. Embrace Dignity is an expression of our love for our fellow South Africans made tangible.

In 2017, the South African Law Reform Commission’s (SALRC) Final Report (Project 107) on Adult Prostitution was published. Click here to read more about the history of the SALRC Report. The Report proposes two draft bills: Partial Decriminalisation (where only those selling sex are decriminalised) and Total Criminalisation (the status quo in South Africa under prohibition).

Despite strong opposition calling for the total decriminalisation of ‘sex work’ as they call it, the international trend is towards the Abolitionist Equality Law, which targets the demand by criminalising the purchase of sex while those selling sex are decriminalised and supported to exit. We are proud to be driving efforts to see the passing of this law.

We are also delighted to see that government is listening to the calls to end all forms of gender-based violence, of which the system of prostitution is one of its worst forms. It has been shown beyond any doubt that the demand for paid sex drives sex trafficking. Our efforts to end sex trafficking will not succeed if we do not remove one of its key drivers – the system of prostitution.

All these efforts will continue under the incoming leadership. In January 2020, the Embrace Dignity Board appointed Advocate Phumla Dwane-Alpman as the Executive Director Designate. Having joined Embrace Dignity as a Board member in June 2019, Dwane-Alpman served as the Chairperson of the Board for six months before becoming the Executive Director Designate. She brings her much-needed legal mind and expertise to ED at this critical stage when government is finally on the road to amending the law on adult prostitution.

Sqhelo Tom was appointed as Chief Operations Officer in January 2020 and has proved to be a great asset for Embrace Dignity in his management of operations, finance and human resources, and in his role as Board Secretary. Ursula Kotelana was also appointed this year as our Parliamentary Liaison Officer to boost our work and engagement with parliament.

We have strengthened our Board with demographically representative members who bring a diverse set of skills to Embrace Dignity and originate from various regions in our country. The Board is led by our newly elected chairperson, Linda Nodada.

Embrace Dignity has also served as the incubation organisation for Kwanele (meaning “enough”), a movement of survivors of the sex trade, which was founded by Mickey Meji in 2017. Kwanele has brought an important voice to the public debate on the system of prostitution from the lived experiences of prostituted women from various regions in South Africa. Kwanele is currently restructuring itself and has established an interim steering committee to lead that process and prepare for our Annual General Meeting in June 2020.

We are also excited to announce the launch of the Kwanele Survivors Speak to provide an authentic voice from the trenches of the abolitionist movement. Hilda Tlou and Babalwa Puthumo launches the series in this issue of our newsletter. I invite you to give us feedback on the series by engaging with Kwanele National Coordinator, Thuli Mbete.

Last year, Embrace Dignity and Kwanele launched the Coalition for the Abolition of Prostitution in Africa (CAPA) Charter. The ultimate goal of CAPA is to abolish the system of prostitution by advocating for the adoption, successful enactment and enforcement of the Abolitionist Equality Law in African countries. In closing, I’d like to invite you to join this growing movement by signing the charter online and helping us promote the adoption of this law.

Best wishes

Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge
Executive Director

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Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic

When the nationwide lockdown, due to the COVID19 pandemic, was announced and declared by President Cyril Ramaphosa on 26 March 2020, Embrace Dignity (ED) was forced to close its offices to adhere to the lockdown regulations. As a result, this affected ED’s operations and required ED staff to start working remotely.

Presently, communication with the staff and the relevant stakeholders is being maintained through the use of technology such as social media platforms (WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram) and other communication channels. Apart from continuously posting on platforms about the realities and harms of the system of prostitution and the need to enact the Abolitionist Equality Law in South Africa, we have also posted articles about how COVID-19 has affected prostituted persons.

The COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown have exacerbated the conditions of prostituted women, especially those who are on chronic medication and have dependents that rely on them for financial support. ED has been working tirelessly to make sure that it offers support and that the human rights of prostituted persons are protected during this crisis.

There have been some interventions from government to provide rapid relief which has required partnerships with civil society to deal with the current crisis.  In order to find sustainable solutions, ED has been part of the following engagements with government and NGOs.

  • A webinar on COVID-19: A gendered perspective was hosted by the Department of Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities on 15 April 2020. The Minister in the Presidency: Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities, Maite Nkoana Mashabane; Deputy Minister in the Presidency: Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities, Professor Hlengiwe Mkhize; and UN Women Representative, Ms Anne Githuku-Shongwe on behalf of the UN Gender Leadership Team, unpacked how the global COVID-19 pandemic affected women.
  • The South African National AIDS Council had a virtual roundtable discussion on 22 April 2020 on reducing the impact of COVID-19 on people living with HIV and TB.
  • On 23 April, we participated in a National Freedom Network (NFN) conference call with different stakeholders to discuss support, collaborations and partnerships.
  • The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) had a virtual roundtable on 30 April 2020, gathering survivor leaders from Argentina, the Netherlands, South Africa and the USA to discuss the effects of the global health crisis (COVID-19) on women in the sex trade. Ms Mickey Meji from ED partook in the panel discussions and spoke about how COVID-19 has affected prostituted women in South Africa.
  • A webinar on Cross-Linkages between Human Trafficking and Pornography: Myth or Reality? was held on 4 May 2020. It was organised by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and moderated by Tatiana Kotlyarenko, an Adviser on Anti-Human Trafficking Issues from the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights  (ODIHR). Speakers included Swedish Ambassador at Large for Combating Trafficking in Persons, Per-Anders Sunesson; Rapporteur for Human Trafficking and Slavery of the Committee on Human Rights and Humanitarian Aid at the German Bundestag, MP Frank Heinrich; Adviser on Children’s Online Safety at the office of the Vice Prime-Minister and Minister for Digital Transformation in the Ukraine, Anastasiya Dzyakava; and Founder and Vice President of Mentari and survivor leader, Shandra Woworuntu.
  • We endorsed an Open letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa calling for support for NGOs during this COVID-19 pandemic organised by Marc Lubner, Co-Founder and Executive Chairman of the Smile Foundation and CEO of Afrika Tikkun; Hedley Lewis, CEO of the Smile Foundation; Kelly du Plessis, CEO of Rare Diseases South Africa NPC; Lauren Pretorius, CEO of Campaigning For Cancer and Apex Leader at Community Constituency Covid-19 Front; and Cassey Chambers, the Operations Director of the South Africa Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG).

We have also collaborated with NGOs and some political officials from the City of Cape Town, such as Councilor Sumaya Taliep, to provide short-term food security relief in the form of food parcels to prostituted women and their families in disadvantaged communities in Gugulethu, Khayelitsha and Mfuleni townships.

ED has also applied for funding to provide relief during the lockdown period for Kwanele members and has thus far received a positive response from the South African Women in Dialogue (SAWID). Kwanele is a survivor-led movement of survivors of the system of prostitution advocating for the successful enactment and implementation of the Abolitionist Equality Law in South Africa. Approximately 250 food parcels were dispatched to the ED offices on 8 May 2020 and will be distributed to the Kwanele members in the Western Cape, ED partners, and other relevant stakeholders within civil society.

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Responding to EFF MP Naledi Chirwa’s “sex work is work” statement By Babalwa Puthumo

I am a survivor of the system of prostitution and I know for sure that the system of prostitution is a form of gender-based violence. The sexual violence and abuse I experienced are the reasons that I will never see prostitution as real work but rather as a means of survival especially in South Africa where we have high levels of poverty and unemployment.

This is why I think EFF Member of Parliament Naledi Chirwa’s “sex work is work” statement is not only dangerous but uninformed. It’s honestly disappointing to hear such statements, especially as a person who has lived experience of being prostituted. I’m interested to know whether the Facebook views expressed by Chirwa, that promotes the commodification of women’s bodies, are solely hers or that of the EFF? Is the EFF promoting gender-based violence? Is it promoting human trafficking for sexual exploitation? Does the economic freedom in our lifetime include prostituted women as well? Or is our economic freedom going to be in the hands of pimps and sex buyers?

We were confident that the EFF, with its predominantly young leadership and members, would focus on uplifting the economy for every black person and not to get political credentials at our expense. 

The Abolitionist Equality Law is the only solution as it exposes the system of prostitution for what it is. Chirwa clearly speaks from a point of privilege. She asked people on social media to pick a side between decriminalisation and criminalisation, but there is a new strategic third way called the Abolitionist Equality Law where prostituted people would be protected and the people who drive this system of prostitution would be held accountable. Buyers must be arrested. Period! The main focus should be on making sure that we, as prostituted women, regain our dignity and womanhood.

To everyone who agrees with Chirwa’s sentiments, stop treating us as a one size fits all. We are also human beings. Speak to survivors of the system of prostitution. None of us grew up dreaming of being the best and highest paid “sex worker” ever. This was just for survival. It can never be a job! Women are not sex objects and people need to stop glamourising prostitution by calling it work. Those who are calling for the decriminalisation of the system of prostitution and its recognition as work are calling for the commodification of women’s bodies and paid rape.

How will decriminalising this system work? Yes, the police will stop harassing us, but who will stop sex buyers, pimps, and brothel owners from exploiting and killing us? Who will make sure that sex buyers stop raping us?

As a survivor of the system of prostitution, I believe the Abolitionist Equality Law is what we need to eliminate the demand for commercial sexual exploitation by holding sex buyers, pimps, and brothel owners accountable for the harm they cause.  Between me and you Chirwa, who has firsthand experience in the sex trade? Who has the right to speak on this? I suggest you meet with us, the Kwanele Survivor Movement, so we can educate you on this topic.

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“None of us grew up dreaming of becoming sex slaves” by Hildah Nompy Tlou

I am Hildah Nompy Tlou and I’m 36 years old. I was born in Witbank, Mpumalanga but I’m currently based in Mbombela. I am a Founder and Director of Impumelelo Yethu Foundation, a women’s empowerment initiative. Due to poverty, lack of education and unemployment I was introduced to prostitution by friends at the age of 22 years.

My life experience on the street was a living hell. I was abused (emotionally, physically, psychologically, sexually and financially) by sex buyers, brothel owners and pimps on a daily basis. The torture, trauma and abuse I went through was unimaginable. I became a prisoner in my own body because of sex buyers, pimps and brothel owners. I realised that I can’t make a living out of something that doesn’t have a job description and puts my life in danger.

The decriminalisation of the system of prostitution and its recognition as work is not a solution to our fight against unemployment, poverty, gender inequality, systematic oppression and patriarchy. As a survivor of the system of prostitution I’ve experienced and seen prostituted people becoming poorer while sex buyers, pimps, brothels owners, and sex traffickers become richer.

As a poor black woman who was once trapped in prostitution, stripped of my human dignity, labelled and humiliated by our society, I plead with our government to restore our womanhood and to not become a vehicle for promoting sexual exploitation, patriarchy, gender-based violence and gender inequality towards vulnerable women by decriminalising the system of prostitution and recognising it as work. We demand dignified job opportunities and the adoption and successful enactment of the Abolitionist Equality Law is the only solution. The Abolitionist Equality Law criminalises the sex buyers, pimps, brothels owners and sex traffickers and decriminalises those who are bought and sold into prostitution. It offers prostituted persons support to exit because none of us grew up dreaming of becoming sex slaves.

Decriminalisation of the system of prostitution and its recognition as work is mostly advocated by sex traffickers, sex buyers, pimps and brothels owners and other parties who are going to benefit from the commodification and sexual exploitation of poor vulnerable women while prostituted people die and some of us live to tell our stories of psychological, emotional, financial and physical trauma as well as an unhealthy and unhappy lifestyle in the system of prostitution.

I encourage our government to adopt the Abolitionist Equality Law now and make sure that no poor vulnerable woman falls into this inherently violent system.

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Support the abolition of prostitution in Africa

Embrace Dignity launched the Coalition for the Abolition of Prostitution (CAPA) charter last year during the Kwanele Survivor Movement public forum. The purpose of the charter is to build a Pan African network that advocates for laws and policies based on the following abolitionist core principles which are:

  • Decriminalising prostituted persons and supporting persons who wish to exit prostitution.
  • Promoting and protecting the rights of survivors of prostitution and trafficking without stigmatisation, and targeting the demand by penalising the purchase of sexual acts.
  • Criminalising and ensuring no impunity for pimps, brothel owners and all other parties who profit from exploiting the prostitution of others.
  • Criminalising and penalising all forms of advertising for paid sexual services.
  • Resolutely and systematically opposing the trafficking in human beings.
  • Training professionals including police, social workers and health professionals on the nature of prostitution and how to provide services.
  • Implementing sex education and prostitution prevention policies, especially targeting schools and the youth.
  • Promoting awareness and conducting studies concerning prostitution and the trafficking in human beings, and harmonising data collection systems.

As part of the global abolitionist movement, the ultimate goal of CAPA in Africa is to abolish the system of prostitution through advocating for the adoption, successful enactment and enforcement of the Abolitionist Equality Law in African countries.

Embrace Dignity has been acting as the Secretariat for the coalition by promoting the CAPA charter on our social media platforms and during meetings and events we attend. We currently have a coalition membership of 350 members, of which 129 members were obtained online and 221 members obtained via events and meetings. The growing membership is comprised of civil society organisations, businesses, traditional and cultural organisations, faith-based organisations, women, youth, and men’s and community-based organisations from Sweden, the United Kingdom, Spain, France and African countries like South Africa, Malawi and Uganda to name a few.

If you would like to promote CAPA or sign the charter, you can find more information on our website by clicking here.

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Our fight against the criminalisation of prostituted persons

In 2017, the South African Law Reform Commission’s (SALRC) Final Report (Project 107) on Adult Prostitution was published. The report is the result of a government-led process to review the fragmented legislative framework that currently regulates adult prostitution within the larger framework of all statutory and common law sexual offences.

It was also commissioned to ensure that South Africa complies with its international obligations under the various conventions and treaties the country has signed and ratified, including the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the 1949 Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others. The other purpose is to bring our laws in line with our Constitution and the basic rights to human dignity, equality and security of the person. 

The Report proposes two draft bills: Partial Decriminalisation (where only those selling sex are decriminalised) and Total Criminalisation (the status quo in South Africa under prohibition). Notably, the Commission totally rejected full decriminalisation, taking into account the current South African context of high levels of unemployment, crippling poverty, the burgeoning numbers of migrant and illegal foreign job seekers, high levels of violence (particularly sexual violence) against women, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, drug or substance abuse, and the targeted exploitation of women engaging in prostitution by third parties, unethical police officers and sex buyers. 

In anticipation of the parliamentary debate on the Report, Embrace Dignity partnered with Norton Rose Fulbright to produce an improved version of the partial decriminalisation bill contained in the SALRC Report. Our version is based on international best practice as represented in the Sex Purchase Act pioneered by Sweden in 1999 as part of an omnibus of laws to combat violence against women. The law targets the demand by criminalising the purchase of sex while those selling sex are decriminalised and supported to exit. In the twenty years since Sweden passed this pioneering law, a growing number of countries have followed suit including Norway (2009), Iceland (2009), Canada (2014), Northern Ireland (2015), France (2016), Ireland (2017), and Israel (2018). 

This law has been called the Swedish Law, Nordic law or Sex Buyer law. It is now referred to as the Abolitionist Equality Law as it was introduced in Sweden as part of a set of initiatives to promote gender equality. It is the only law that has a coherent, understandable strategy to reduce the extent of the oppressive system of prostitution by addressing the demand.

Despite strong opposition calling for the total decriminalisation of ‘sex work’ as they call it, the international trend is leaning overwhelmingly towards the Abolitionist Equality Law, and we are proud to be driving efforts to see the passing of this law in South Africa and the rest of Africa.

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Mainstreaming Pimpland in the NYC Subway System

The following Op-Ed was written by . Taina Bien-Aimé is the Executive Director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW), one of the oldest international organizations dedicated to ending trafficking in women and girls and commercial sexual exploitation as practices of gender-based violence and discrimination.

Last February, the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) plastered ads throughout New York City’s vast subway system that, unbeknownst to riders, promote prostitution. 

Bright, eye-catching pink and red posters urged New Yorkers to flock to a free pop-up exhibit “celebrating the global sex worker movement.” Activities and talks from March 10-16 would have burbled at the pop-up, had alerts about the deadly COVID-19 pandemic not shut it down a few days after opening. 

At first glance, the advertised event just seemed an innocuous celebration of a marginalized group that suffers in silence and isolation. In most countries, including every US state, people in prostitution are harassed and arrested by the police, shunned by society, incarcerated far too often. Women bought and sold in the few legal brothels in rural Nevada are immune to arrest but suffer stigmatization and exploitation.  

But that’s not the full story behind the pop-up and the movement it promotes. Which is why 14 New York City-based groups, mostly direct service providers, survivor-led groups, and women’s rights organizations, challenged the MTA for accepting advertising that violates its own internal rules prohibiting the promotion of illegal goods and activities, political messages or “sexually oriented business.”

So, what is the story? 

The phrase “sex work “is a euphemism for prostitution. Coined in the late seventies by the sex trade and its supporters to legitimize sexual exploitation as employment, the term is a creative stroke that has changed the way we talk about prostitution. 

The mediaacademiaHollywood, and the self-anointed progressive movement view prostitution exclusively through the lens of personal choice, autonomy and self-identity, not as a phenomenon rooted in histories of misogyny, racism, and colonization.

The sex trade functions like any commercial market, operating on the principles of supply and demand, driven by an incentive for profit. 

The “supply” here comprises the most vulnerable populations on the planet, primarily children and women who have endured childhood sexual violence, inequalities, displacement, foster care, and suffered from an appalling absence of socio-economic choices. 

New York is no exception. Disenfranchised women and girls, as well as trans youth, mostly people of color and overwhelmingly victims of sex trafficking, are fodder for the local sex trade. 

Their profiteers thrive online and off: pimps and traffickers; owners and managers of brothels, illicit massage parlors, strip clubs, escort services, sugar dating websites; and pornographers. These perpetrators generally enjoy impunity for the crimes they perpetuate to procure victims and keep them in check, using a variety of tactics, from vicious coercion to ritualistic violence to debt bondage. 

The invisible pillar of the sex trade, however, are the men who purchase sexual acts with quasi-blanket exemption from accountability. Since the novel coronavirus outbreak, a plethora of news articles are reporting about the decimation of brothels and other commercial sex establishments and red-light districts. Almost none are talking about the men who create the demand for prostitution that hold the pillars of prostitution on their shoulders and foster sex trafficking.   Do the math: without this demand, the sex trade crumbles. 

The MTA defended the pop-up ad campaign as constitutionally protected free speech, promoting a cultural exhibit, not prostitution. 

Had the MTA conducted any research before accepting these ads, it would have discovered these were false assumptions. They would have recognized that the poster’s red umbrella is the universal logo of the movement to decriminalize the sex trade worldwide. 

The MTA might have found out that former leaders of the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (whose logo includes said red umbrella) were convicted of sex trafficking and are now serving prison sentences in Mexico and Argentina.

Had the MTA logged onto the @sexworkerspopup Instagram account, prominently noted on the colorful posters, it would have quickly seen linked pages with child pornography, which I cannot cite here. 

While the MTA claimed the ads didn’t promote political activities, five minutes of research would have yielded announcementsof talks at the pop-ups by elected officials and political candidates promoting the decriminalization of brothels, sex buying and sex tourism. 

Not to mention, the expensive ad campaign was sponsored by George Soros’ billion-dollar Open Society Foundations, which also endows the global movement to decriminalize, legalize, and deregulate the sex trade.

With this information, the MTA would have understood that celebrating the “sex worker movement” is not about helping those surviving the hell that is prostitution, nor about helping them exit, but about promoting the sex trade itself. Otherwise, this movement, which includes convicted pimps and sexual predators, would never ask governments to greenlight the commercial sex market.

And let’s not forget pornography, which sex trade survivors routinely describe as prostitution on screen. 

The sex trade is shifting further online. Pornhub, the largest digital warehouse of pornographic videos, is taking advantage of the COVID-19 crisis by offering free premium access to its platform, which includes documented rapes and the sex trafficking of children

Individuals can always “choose” to engage in dangerous activities that put their lives at risk and a tiny percentage of those in prostitution claim they entered the sex trade freely, as adults, without any third-party extorting every dollar. The “sex work” movement argues getting paid for sexual acts is simply labor and must be fully decriminalized. 

But the growing movement of survivors, fighting the normalization of the sex trade, is a powerful one. The truths these women (as well as a few men and trans women) share about their lived experiences in prostitution and pornography offer us meaningful solutions to combat the horrors sex buyers, exploiters, and prostitution imposes.

“Prostitution is the only ‘job’ where what you earn declines the longer you remain in it,” said Mickey Meji, advocacy manager at Embrace Dignity and the founder of Kwanele, a survivor-led network in South Africa when I asked her whether claims that prostitution is work like any other is rooted in reality. 

“In all other professions, experience offers you increased regard and higher earnings. Prostitution is the only ‘occupation’ where experience strips one’s dignity,” Meji added.

Will the worst health crisis in modern history end the sex trade or recreate it? 

Will COVID-19 lead states to finally recognize that people prostituted in the multi-billion-dollar sex trade are not only harmed, but also in urgent need of housing, medical assistance, and other services? 

Effective responses to these needs rests on laws and policies, such as those enacted in Sweden and France among other countries, which recognize prostitution as a dangerous system of exploitation steeped in acute discrimination and gender-based violence. 

New York and other U.S. states must pass laws that hold sex buyers and pimps accountable, fund necessary, comprehensive services for people in prostitution, and uphold principles of equality for all—rather than letting the MTA promote Pimpland.

“It seems to me that this pandemic of global consciousness is the right time to explain that body invasion by strangers is the most dangerous ‘job’ on earth — and why prostituted women and children have such a low survival rate physically — without even starting on social and emotional survival,” said author and feminist activist Gloria Steinem on steps needed to change the dominant narrative normalizing the sex trade. “Shouldn’t we seize the moment and get a global commitment recognizing that?” 

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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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