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Dear ANC Delegates and MPs,

Having been born and raised in the final years of apartheid I understood that the only movement that seeks to liberate the poor, black, and oppressed, was the African National Congress “ivili elinomkhonto” as my grandmother would say. So much so that when I was old enough to vote for the first time, in the second national democratic elections in 1999, there was no doubt in my mind that the only organisation I was going to vote for was the ANC. I was awed by your courage to challenge the apartheid system and its oppression of the people.

Many of you sacrificed much more than anyone else will ever do in their lifetime. For the liberation of the people and the country, you abandoned your families and went into exile. Some of you went to prison, and others paid the ultimate sacrifice – they gave their lives so that we, your children, could enjoy freedom, justice and equality.

It would be unjust not to acknowledge that the ANC was responsible for the democracy we now enjoy.

But with all due respect my Fathers, Mothers and elders, you have lost your way, and by so doing you will find yourselves on the wrong side of history.

As a black young South African woman who has always been disadvantaged, I was deeply disturbed to hear in the news in December that the 54th ANC Conference held at Nasrec adopted a resolution to support the full decriminalisation of prostitution and its recognition as “work”. By so doing, you have sent a clear message not only to us your daughters but the whole world how you would like us and our children, your grandchildren to remember you.

Women in prostitution do not wake up one day and “choose” to be prostituted. Prostitution is chosen for them by our colonial past and apartheid, persistent inequalities, poverty, past sexual and physical abuse, the pimps who take advantage of our vulnerabilities and the men who buy us in prostitution. Most women are drawn into prostitution at a young age, some as young as 13 years old. Women and girls in prostitution have almost no resources to help them exit the sex trade. There is currently no government support for pyscho-social services or economic empowerment programs to provide alternatives for women and girls in prostitution and those who are at risk of entering this very harmful exploitative “industry”.

Twenty thousand women, some of which are still amongst you in the ANC today, marched against the unjust apartheid system to the Union Buildings and vowed not to rest until they had won fundamental rights to freedom, justice and security for us, their children. Is this the freedom these women were fighting to win – the right for the privileged and powerful to buy us, their daughters for their sexual pleasure?

Your organisation has been in government for the past two decades. During this time the rich have become richer and the poor, poorer. You have yet to effectively address the inequalities caused by male domination, our colonial past and apartheid. While these inequalities remain your 54thconference resolution to fully decriminalize prostitution and recognize it as work will, in effect legitimize the exploitation of those made vulnerable by the inequalities the liberation struggle sought to end.

The decriminalization of prostitution and its recognition as work goes against the spirit and letter of our constitution. The Bill of Rights in Chapter Two of our constitution guarantees the right to life and human dignity. It guarantees the right to equality, bodily and psychological integrity and security of the person. Under no circumstances should these fundamental rights be denied or compromised. The state is under obligation to do all it can to protect these rights, including using the limitation clause. Prostitution undermines all the basic human rights in our constitution. There is no way the decriminalization of the sex trade can be justified and be in line with our constitution.

You speak about radical economic transformation. Is the decriminalization of prostitution and its recognition as work part of your plan to radically transform the lives of the poor, black and disadvantaged economically? Since under your proposed legal framework prostitution will now be “work” will a new curriculum be introduced at schools to prepare girls for this” profession”?

Our constitution promotes equality regardless of race, gender or economic status. I fail to understand how we will achieve gender equality by promoting the financial dependence of women on men. If women are to sell sex for survival this makes them dependent on men and that does not make them equal to men but puts them at the mercy of men.

There is strong evidence that points to the fact that women and girls in prostitution suffer gross human rights violations at the hands of those who buy them for sex, those who sell and exploit them for their financial benefit (pimps and brothel owners) and the police. Yes, I agree that the violence is perpetuated by the fact these women are criminalized and therefore receive no protection from the law. They fear re-victimization by the criminal justice system. I agree they those who sell sex should be decriminalized but there is no basis to decriminalize those who buy sex and those who sell women and girls (pimps and brothel owners). They must remain criminalized. They should not be given a license to exploit a position of vulnerability caused by gender inequality, unemployment and poverty.

Women in prostitution dream of a life free from oppression, patriarchy, and economic inequalities. A life where they have access to a wider array of dignified and decent employment options, where they can participate as citizens and not a “key population”, living on the margins of society.

I urge you to remember the goals of the Freedom Charter of which you, our Fathers, Mothers and Elders are the custodians. I remind you of International Human Rights Law, which grants women’s fundamental rights to dignity, equality, freedom from oppression and exploitation and the security of the person. My Fathers, Mothers and elders, I urge you to rethink your 54th conference resolution. Those who sell sex should be decriminalized but those who buy, sell and exploit them must remain criminalized.

I hope to hear from you soonest.

Your Daughter,

Mickey Meji (Founder & Leader of KWANELE Movement)

This article was published on news24 on the 28 January 2018. Click here to view the article.

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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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We advocate for partial decriminalisation – or the Equality Model – wherein the sellers are decriminalised and offered a way out of the system through comprehensive exit programs, and the buyers and third parties are criminalised: INFO FACT SHEET – OUR POSITION

Current Legal Framework on prostitution in SA: INFO FACT SHEET – LEGAL FRAMEWORKS

The system of prostitution places people exploited within it at high risk of HIV/AIDS infection. It is indisputable that total criminalisation – South Africa’s legal model regarding prostitution – worsens the position and compromises the safety of those vulnerable to infection in a number of ways: INFO FACT SHEET – HIV AIDS

There are a number of harms faced by prostituted people given South Africa’s current legislative Framework: INFO FACT SHEET – HARMS

Social, economic, political, cultural and legal factors place vulnerable people in a position where prostitution is the only option available for survival, therefore significantly decreasing chances of not only preventing entry, but exiting the system too: INFO FACT SHEET – EXIT

The Equality Law was first introduced in Sweden in 1999 and has been shown to be highly effective in reducing demand for prostitution and making the country in question a more hostile destination for traffickers:INFO FACT SHEET – EQUALITY MODEL

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written by Thabo Tshelane and McKenzie Swain

Human trafficking is an epidemic in South Africa and it is becoming more and more evident. Just last week Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, the Honourable John Jeffery said that “South Africa has become a source, transit and destination country for human trafficking”[1]. According to the 2014 Global Slavery Index, it is estimated that South Africa has 106 000 victims of modern day slavery. The issue has become so prevalent and the consequences are so devastating that the root causes need to be addressed.

Steps have already been taken to combat human trafficking across South Africa and the entire African continent. In the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa of 2003, Article 4(g) states that there is a need to “prevent and condemn trafficking in women, prosecute the perpetrators of such trafficking and protect those women most at risk”. In South Africa similar language is used in the Prevention and Combating of Trafficking in Persons Act 7 of 2013, accentuating the need to prevent and combat trafficking.

While the country and the international community see the need for prevention and understand the human rights violations and harms in trafficking, we have to wonder if they are failing to address the actual causes.

Root Causes

When analysing human trafficking we need to look at it from a macro level. According to the European Parliament’s Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality, “the sex industry is based on the principle of supply and demand” with demand being the main driving force behind sex trafficking. The sex industry works just like any other market; when there is a large demand for something, sexual services in this case, there is an incentive to get a supply of vulnerable persons to satisfy that demand.

So how can this demand be stopped?

First, we cannot ignore the fact that prostitution and human trafficking are linked. Where prostitution is thriving so is trafficking. The United Nations adopted the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons and in this protocol it was stressed that the exploitation of persons for sex and the causes of prostitution and human trafficking cannot be separated. The demand for sexual services fuels both. This means that in order to stop one you must stop the other. Ms Sigma Huda, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children from 2004 to 2008 clearly articulated this when she said:  “Prostitution as actually practised in the world usually does satisfy the elements of trafficking.”

In fact, the same conditions that define human trafficking are present in prostitution. As Prof Catharine MacKinnon, the American radical feminist, scholar, lawyer, teacher and activist, points out: “The Palermo Protocol definition, which is sweeping the world, includes being sexually exploited through force, fraud, or coercion for commercial sex, all of which indeed occurs in the sex industry”. In addition, says MacKinnon, “trafficking is transportation, transfer, harbo(u)ring, or receipt of a human being for purposes of sexual exploitation: it is straight-up pimping”, an apt description, we argue, for prostitution as well. (2011, p.299).

Prostitution has become an intense topic in South African politics due to the fact that the legislation surrounding the matter is changing. The two strongest views are for either total decriminalisation or partial decriminalisation. Both will have immense effects on human trafficking, therefore the issue of trafficking needs to be at the forefront of every conversation surrounding prostitution. It is impossible to discuss one without the other.

Total Decriminalisation and Human Trafficking

When prostitution is legalised, what will happen to trafficking? According to studies done in various countries and areas that have legalised the buying and selling of sexual services, trafficking is out of control. In the Netherlands, Australia and Germany, where prostitution is legalised, it is estimated that 70-80% of the women prostituted in those countries were actually trafficked. When the sex industry is legalised it is accompanied by an explosion in organised crime and  a rise in child sexual exploitation (Raymond,2004).

Legalising prostitution perpetuates human trafficking by strengthening and growing the demand for sexual services. According to Amanda Kloer in the article Legal Prostitution in Australia, a Failure only 10% of prostitution takes place in Australia’s legal brothels while 90% takes place in illegal markets that are teeming with trafficking and exploitation.

Total legalisation does not address the root causes of trafficking and exploitation. Instead it allows the demand for sex to grow, thus growing the trafficking industry. 

Partial Decriminalisation and Human Trafficking

Partial criminalisation refers to a law which allows the police to arrest persons purchasing sexual acts for contravening the law while persons who are selling sex are free from prosecution. The aim of partial decriminalisation, also referred to as the Equality Law, is to address the main cause of exploitation in prostitution – the buyers. The Equality Law criminalises parties that create the demand for sexual services such as those who buy these services as well as “pimps” and owners of brothels.

Sweden enacted the Equality Law in 1999 and has since seen a massive impact with regards to human trafficking. According to Huda, the law in Sweden has directly limited sex trafficking. The sex market in Sweden is no longer profitable because the demand is no longer there. It has therefore been proven that enacting the Equality Law addresses the demand that fuels the sex industry, limits the market and diminishes trafficking.

Human trafficking is a worldwide issue that South Africa is not immune to. It affects every aspect of society and it needs to be addressed at the macro level, paying attention to the influence the sex industry has in its augmentation. Once policy makers and government officials realise that the fight against human trafficking cannot be separated from prostitution, maybe then will we start seeing real results in ending this inhumane practice of trafficking vulnerable persons.

Thabo Tshelane is responsible for social media and communications at Embrace Dignity while McKenzie Swain, an American student from George Washington University in Washington DC, is completing an internship at Embrace Dignity.


Read more about Why Sonke Gender Justice’s Opinion On Partial Decriminalisation Is Ill-informed

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written by Irene Whelan Vita and Savannah Estridge, Irene and Savannah are Interns at Embrace Dignity. 

In a statement released by the NGO, Sonke Gender Justice in 2016, the claim was made that the Equality Law, in other words partial criminalisation of “sex work”, will not help “sex workers” or South African society. We do not agree.

The question of the appropriate legislative approach to prostitution has been a controversial and heated topic for many years. This debate has seen members of parliament asking themselves an important question at this time in South Africa’s history: Which form of legislation will protect the rights of those individuals who sell sex and eliminate abuse and exploitation of some of the country’s most vulnerable women?

On the one side of the spectrum is full criminalisation, where the buyer, the pimp, and the seller are criminalised for engaging in prostitution related offences. The opposing view is full decriminalisation or legalisation, which has been enacted in countries such as the Netherlands, Germany, and parts of Australia. The rationale behind this policy is that prostitution is a consensual act between two people in exchange for payment, that prostitution should be a regulated market where “sex workers” have access to medical services and can report violent crimes without the fear of being incarcerated themselves. Both views are fundamentally misguided.

Full criminalisation is detrimental to the rights of prostituted women who are often coerced into prostitution and suffer violent physical and emotional abuses through the exploitation of their bodies. Full criminalisation blindly condemns all involved; those who sell and purchase sex, as well as benefitting third parties such as pimps and brothel owners. It punishes indiscriminately not only those who exploit others, but also those who are exploited. Under this legislation, prostituted persons are deterred from reporting to the police any abuse suffered at the hands of those who exploit them. This leaves them at great risk of injury and even death.

Full criminalisation fails to recognise the fact that most people who sell sex are not doing so out of their own free will, yet the law punishes them for having a lifestyle that was chosen for them by circumstances of poverty, oppression, and misogyny. It fails to acknowledge that the vast majority of prostituted persons are victims of their environment; economic and physical coercion, poverty and addiction. This induces a situation where the lack of real choice pushes them to choose between the lesser of two evils in order to survive and provide for their loved ones.

Criminalisation also prevents prostituted persons from exiting prostitution as it leaves a permanent red mark – masked as a criminal conviction – on their lives, thereby barring any prospect of them getting a different job. This fuels a negative spiral that leads to relapses and incarceration. Because this law does not provide resources to address the root causes of why women (in this case) are resorting to prostitution in the first place, nor provides prostituted women with alternative ways to support themselves or their families, they are very likely to have to continue to rely on prostitution in order to survive.

Full decriminalisation, in theory, is meant to protect those exploited through prostitution, but fails to do so. Several countries have attempted to regulate the industry to keep those prostituted safe. Unfortunately, however, this method has been unsuccessful. What happens behind closed doors is difficult to regulate and so those in prostitution continue to frequently suffer abuses and still fear reporting on such a taboo topic.

Decriminalisation, on the other hand does not address the demand for purchased sex. As a result human trafficking often skyrockets in countries that fully decriminalise prostitution. In the Netherlands, Australia and Germany, where prostitution is legalised, it is estimated that 70-80% of  women prostituted are trafficked. In theory, this legislation intends to protect the most vulnerable by giving them autonomy over their own bodies but in practice, it fails to do so.

This method attempts to minimise the abuses that those in prostitution suffer, rather than address the root causes and the power imbalance between genders in order to prevent them in the first place. It has been estimated that 85% of prostituted persons are women whereas almost 100% of buyers are men. Legalisation fails to acknowledge that the sex industry is a result of a patriarchal rape culture that has normalised the idea that some have a birth right to purchase access to a person’s body merely by virtue of the position of power that they hold.  To provide a ‘regulated’ and ‘safe’ environment is to accept values of misogyny and gender-based oppression. Legislation does not tackle the problem at the root cause, it  merely tries to cure the symptoms.

We believe that the solution in South Africa is a middle ground – partial decriminalisation (also referred to as the Equality Model Law). This method decriminalises the exploited person being prostituted and criminalises those who exploit them (buyers of sex, pimps, and brothel owners). This way, those who are forced into prostitution, for instance, through trafficking, coercion, physical abuse, financial troubles, or a lack of education will not be punished. It addresses the gender inequality that is one of the root causes of prostitution, rather than only treating the existing harms caused by the industry.

Partial decriminalisation recognises that those who sell sex are victims and that the purchasing of sex is a form of gender-based violence. Additionally, the law provides for the implementation of exit programmes to support those who want to exit prostitution and helps them reintegrate into society by providing them with legal advice, health care, financial support and career training. Unlike legalisation, when implemented correctly, the Equality Model Law succeeds in giving women power over their own bodies and the ability to protect themselves. It will therefore prevent men from exploiting those in prostitution without a major risk of punishment for their actions. Exit programmes provide those in prostitution with the resources to control their own lives, take back their dignity, and determine their own destiny.

Critics of partial decriminalisation (also referred to as the Equality Model Law) have argued that the legislative proposal would not successfully reduce prostitution but would, instead, drive the industry further  underground, expose prostituted persons to more violence, and force them to resort to sexual activities with clients that they would otherwise not consent to. However, in Sweden, where the Equality Model Law was enacted in 1999, there was no evidence found to support that claim. In fact, since 1999, Sweden has experienced a 50% decrease in the number of persons involved in street prostitution and the scale of internet prostitution has risen at a much slower rate than in neighbouring countries1. In fact, the provisions of exit programmes ensure that prostituted persons can exit prostitution and are not forced to continue providing sexual services in more dangerous and violent circumstances.

Additionally, the Equality Law has made Sweden a much less attractive destination for human trafficking and the percentage of the population that is trafficked for prostitution in Sweden is 50 times less than in Finland, where prostitution is legal2. In the Netherlands, where prostitution was legalised in 2000, the Mayor of Amsterdam stated that the new legislation had failed to prevent trafficking, that “it appeared impossible to create a safe and controllable zone for women that was not open to abuse by organised crime”3.  The same concerns have also been echoed by the National Council of Women of New Zealand, which had originally supported decriminalisation, but later expressed concern about the fact that it was “still seeing girls as young as 13 and 14 on the streets selling their bodies”4.

In Germany, over one-third of prosecutors noted that legalising prostitution “made their work in prosecuting trafficking in human beings and pimping more difficult”5. In Australia, only 10% of prostitution takes place in Australia’s legal brothels and 90% in illegal markets rife with trafficking and exploitation6. There is an evident and strong correlation between prostitution and human trafficking, yet legalisation has failed to reduce either one.

It has also been argued that the Equality Model Law would not work in South Africa because the government does not have the means to fund exit programmes. This argument is shortsighted and not supported by any evidence. In fact, a study done in France in 2015 estimated the turnover generated from prostitution at €3.2 billion (R46 billion) annually, half of which is taken abroad7. The number of prostituted persons in South Africa is four times higher than in France and the percentage of female population in prostitution is nine times greater8. So, although no exact figure can be estimated, it is clear that the prostitution industry in South Africa generates an alarmingly high turnover which hinders economic growth for the country itself and contributes to the causes of unemployment. Additionally, the study estimated the social cost of prostitution to be around €1,6 billion (R24 billion) annually9. These figures show that reducing or abolishing prostitution is economically beneficial for society and would necessarily provide the government with sufficient funds to provide exit programmes.

South Africa should enact a law that reflects the reality that victims of prostitution are not criminals. To do this, it should follow the example of the most gender-equal countries in the world and enact the Equality Model Law in order to reduce gender-based violence, human trafficking and ultimately abolish prostitution.

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Policy, defined by the South African government as “what a government ministry hopes to achieve and the methods and principles it will use to achieve them”, is central in the lawmaking process. It informs the law because it provides context to the particular issue being dealt with. Without vision and clarity on the principles underlying the work government hopes to do, laws would be empty and aimless in their attempts to achieve our Constitutional mandate and vision for a South Africa founded on Dignity, Equality and Freedom.

It within this context that Embrace Dignity has been particularly focused on developing quality content around the issue of prostitution. With the resources and content developed in the month of May, we hope to provide the information necessary to lay the foundation for policies on prostitution to be developed within the ministries of Justice, Social Development, Health, Education and Police. To this end, we have created one-page fact sheets that we have issued to members of Parliament, leaders of political parties, the media and non-governmental organisations and social movements. The fact sheets were disseminated with the hope that they will inform government’s development of comprehensive and effective policies outlining the aims and methods to be implemented by the government to realise the dignity and freedom of people exploited and brutalised within prostitution.

Moreover, in our review of the draft bills recommended by the South African Law Reform Commission (SALRC), we have found that there is a lack of focused and comprehensive policies reflected in the draft bills proposed by the SALRC. This is particularly evident in the second option recommended by the SALRC – total criminalisation with diversion. This recommendation shows how policy that does not clearly outline the goals and vision of what a law is based on – for example the value system that informs the law and what the kind of society we are building as a country – leads to bills and laws that do not speak to effecting the change necessary for the realisation of the Constitutionally-protected rights of those being prostituted.

Option one in the report is a legal framework referred to as Partial Criminalisation. This in itself is problematic as it does not reflect the fact that South Africa is moving away from a criminalised framework and that the intentions of the particular legal framework proposed by the SALRC would be partial decriminalisation rather than partial criminalisation. While this might sound like it is one and the same thing, it is not. Under criminalisation, all aspects of the system of prostitution are criminalised. Therefore, any change we make should be to decriminalise one aspect (those who are bought and sold) while the buyer, the pimp, the brothel owner and the trafficker remain criminalised. By decriminalising the bought and sold we can reduce demand and thus prevent new entry and support exit.  However, the way the draft bill is framed suggests a lack of understanding of the intentions of partial decriminalisation, where the person selling sex acts is completely decriminalised. The second problem is the vagueness on matters of implementation and putting systems in place for actually reducing the harms inherent in prostitution.

Again, it is clear that without policies in place, the lawmaking process is compromised and lacking in context. Policy informs law, and if a policy is not informed by the reality on the ground of those it is seeking to protect or its intentions, vision and methodology are not clearly defined or understood from the outset, the bills and laws that emanate from these policies can prove to be ineffective in the long run as well.

In our own mission to make policy and law accessible to all, we have decided to share a number of information resources with the public. We hope that this initiative will help deepen our engagement with various stakeholders regarding the law we want and the dignified future we are trying to create, free of exploitation.  To access these documents, please visit our website:

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