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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For many poor, black and unskilled women in South Africa entering the sex industry is not a real choice. Instead it provides immediate employment and a means to take care of their families. However, it’s also a decision that is often shrouded in secrecy.

This was the case for *Thandiswa (not her real name) when she lost her job as a seamstress in Wynberg, Cape Town, a few years ago. She had just given birth to her second child and needed to find money to survive.

Her relationship with the father of her newborn daughter disintegrated soon after and he kicked Thandiswa out of his shack that they were sharing in the township of Gugulethu.

“I was earning R4 500 a month and then I had nothing,” says Thandiswa.

With that money, she could take care of herself and also send money home to her mother who was taking care of her firstborn daughter in Port Elizabeth.

“I couldn’t stay with my boyfriend anymore but our daughter stayed with him. A woman that I knew gave me a place to stay. She told me I could stay for free but I just needed to buy food and electricity,” says Thandiswa.

She told one of her friends that she was looking for a job. One night, the same friend took her to a pub in Voortrekker Road in Bellville.

“She didn’t tell me we were going to do business (selling sex). One guy called me over (at the pub) and took me to his place to have sex,” says Thandiswa.

“Then he gave me money and took me back to the pub. I asked my friend what this was about. She told me this was the business. So I started to sell my body,” says Thandiswa as she explains how she first started selling sex.

Thandiswa says prostitution put her on her feet again.

“Suddenly my life was good because I had a lot of money. Some nights I made R2 500 and I had ten clients a night. If I wanted to go to Port Elizabeth I could do it immediately,” she says.

“Everyone knew that I had money but they didn’t know I was a “prostitute”. They didn’t ask where I got the money. If people know I’m a “prostitute” they would judge me and I would lose my dignity.”

For years, Thandiswa held three bank accounts, each with money in it from selling her body.

“I was supporting my two children. I needed to work to support them,” she says.

By 2015 she had saved enough money to buy her own shack for R14 000 in Gugulethu. While it might sound like Thandiswa was living the high life, prostitution was far from it.

“When you work as a “prostitute” you are walking on the streets the whole night. You are not sleeping and you get tired. You are sleeping with many men. You can get diseases. Guys who come to you force you to have sex without a condom,” says Thandiswa.

“Some men have sex with you and don’t give you money. Some men leave you in the middle of nowhere in the night. Some men beat you or take all your clothes off.”

This is exactly what happened to Thandiswa one night when a client took her clothes and left her naked in the street. Luckily for her, a passerby was willing to help by offering her something to cover herself up with.

“Life on the street is not good. Some women have died on the streets because clients beat them. I don’t know why men treat “prostitutes” so badly.”

Thandiswa also faced police arrests during that time.

“The police do not arrest the men. They should arrest the men too, because if men didn’t [buy sex] then prostitution would stop. Nobody would sell their body.”

The turning point for Thandiswa came when she was arrested for prostitution and spent two months in Pollsmoor prison.

“Being in prison wasn’t nice at all. After that, I decided to do some training in housekeeping and I found a job at a hotel. I didn’t want to go to jail again,” says Thandiswa.

It has not been an easy road though.

“My contract at the hotel ended and I have been looking for a job since 2016. I also did some more training with NGOs to get more skills but I haven’t found a job yet.”

“I’m submitting my CV to a lot of places but can’t find a job. I want to earn money so I can support my children again.”

Thandiswa says her life has changed a lot since she stopped working as a “prostitute” and her views on it have changed too since she started going to church again.

“My friend who took me to the pub also stopped working as a “prostitute”. We now go to church together,” says Thandiswa.

“I’m not judging them (prostituted women). I did it because I was desperate for money. But I think it’s better to leave prostitution. I’m very happy now that I’m not a “prostitute”.”

She adds: “I think most women who are “prostitutes” don’t really want to do it. Some have done it for a long time and don’t want to change. But you can’t work on the streets for so many years.”

Photo: Grizelda Grootboom (pictured) became the public face of prostituted women in 2016 with the release of her book EXIT!, which shares her harrowing tale of being trafficked for sex in Johannesburg. Grizelda was able to share that story thanks to the support she received from Embrace Dignity to help her put that story into words. Through our #ListenToSurvivors story series we hope to do the same for many other women whose stories have not yet been told.

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We recently had two groups of students visit Embrace Dignity to learn about the organisation’s mission and how we have helped women in our community exit prostitution. The first group consisted of students from a range of countries across the world and who are enrolled for the Global Affairs Masters Program at New York University in the United States. The students focus on different fields of study in their degree such as development, international law and human rights, transnational security, and energy policy.

“The students were on a study abroad course to learn more about some of the struggles and successes of societal change since the overthrow of apartheid and the introduction of a non-racial, non-sexist democratic government in South Africa,” says Ms Savannah Estridge, an intern at Embrace Dignity who is completing a Masters in Human Rights and International Law with a focus on gender at New York University in the United States.

During the visit the students were told the life stories of the Sisters who had exited prostitution or were in the process of exiting through Embrace Dignity’s Exit Programme. They were also invited to sit through a Sisterhood meeting and hear firsthand accounts of survivors of prostitution and trafficking.

“The students found the visit to be very moving and valuable and were very happy that we were willing to take time out of our schedules to educate them about the work we are doing to end prostitution through law reform, public education and by supporting prostituted persons to exit prostitution. The students were accompanied by their professor, Barbara Borst, who worked as a journalist in South Africa for many years during the late eighties and early nineties,” added Estridge.

Embrace Dignity was also able to host a group of high school learners from Edmund Rice Education Australia who had come to South Africa on a study abroad course to learn about different human rights issues that affect the country.

“We spent quite a bit of time asking the learners about some of the observations they had made when it came to human rights issues in South Africa during their visit. Many of the learners highlighted issues of mass inequality between the rich and the poor, complicated racial relations, as well as gender-based violence as contentious points.”

According to Estridge the discussion was followed up with a breakdown of the work being done by Embrace Dignity and an explanation of how all of the issues that the learners had observed in the communities they had visited also affected the work being done by Embrace Dignity.

“We also discussed how patriarchy remains entrenched in all our communities globally and the role of learners in bringing about social change on their own and by joining hands with reputable organisations like Embrace Dignity.”

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Get Our Advocacy T-shirt

We have taken our advocacy and public awareness campaign to the public with the creation of a number of t-shirts sporting some powerful advocacy messages for men, women and children in our communities. While t-shirts are given free of charge to the Survivors who helped us develop the messaging on the materials we are also selling it to the general public as part of the Dignity Marketplace, a platform where we sell products made by survivors as part of the Exit Programme. The funds are also used to support Sistahood, a safe space that survivors have established for their weekly meetings to support one another and to learn new skills. If you want to support our awareness campaign and contribute to the Survivor Exit Programme, you can order a t-shirt for R180 by mailing

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Meet Our Intern: McKenzie Swain

McKenzie Swain joined the Embrace Dignity team in May of this year and will spend the next two months with us to improve her knowledge on and experience of what it takes to successfully manage a non-governmental organisation advocating for the rights of women that are prostituted and trafficked for sex. We sat down with Swain to find out more about her interest in the non-profit sector.

Q: What are you currently doing back home?

A: I attend George Washington University in Washington D.C. where I am a sophomore pursuing a degree in International Affairs with a concentration in International Development Studies. I am hoping to minor in either Women’s Studies or Human Services and Social Justice in future.

Q: Why did you decide to come to Embrace Dignity for an internship?

A: My goal in future is to pursue a career in the non-profit sector focusing on development. I am specifically interested in helping people further their education and gender equality across the world. I chose to do an internship at Embrace Dignity because I share the same view as the organisation – that prostitution is a form of gender based violence. I also believe strongly in the Nordic Model or Equality Law.

Q: What else, other than Embrace Dignity’s vision and mission, attracted you to the organisation?

A: It was not only Embrace Dignity’s ideology that brought me to the NGO, but the fact that the organisation is actually bringing about real change and creating dialogue. Embrace Dignity does not only advocate for law reform, it creates support systems to help those who have already exited prostitution. Their holistic approach to the problem of prostitution was what drew me to the organisation.

Q: What else do you hope to gain from your time at Embrace Dignity?

A: During my time in Cape Town I hope to gain real experience on how to manage a non-profit and also witness what it takes to run a successful NGO. My goal is to bring that knowledge back to the United States so that I can continue advocating for gender equality there.

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Advocating At The Community Level

Mobilising prostituted persons to advocate for their rights across South Africa

Mickey Meji, responsible for Civic Advocacy, the Survivor Empowerment and Support Programme (SESP) and Kwanele, recently spent two weeks in the Eastern Cape and Gauteng along with Embrace Dignity Communication and Social Media intern, Thabo Tshelane, Executive Director, Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, and Promise Mthembu, a consultant on gender and women’s rights, to engage in dialogue with gender activists and to train survivors and prostituted persons on advocating for their rights.

Embrace Dignity and Masimanyane Women’s Support Centre co-hosted the two-day community dialogue in East London. Participants came from urban and rural areas across the Eastern Cape and included women working against gender based violence, the youth and civil servants from the South African Police Service, Social Development and Public Prosecutions. “This was the first of a series of outreach activities Embrace Dignity plans to conduct in different parts of the country,” said Meji.

“The broad objectives of the meeting was to raise awareness about the socio-economic issues that drive people to prostitution and to help them think about ways to address these issues effectively, change attitudes towards prostituted women and identify the role their organisations can play in ongoing law reform discussions and the overall programme to change our society,” added Meji.

Participants were introduced to current legal frameworks governing prostitution around the world and to the law reform process in South Africa. They then evaluated the legal frameworks for appropriateness for South Africa, particularly focusing on the Equality Model Law which has gained traction in a number of countries recently.

“Participants were therefore encouraged to engage with the Equality Model Law and to discuss their own concerns about it,” said Meji.

Participants and the organisations represented at the meeting, who also form part of the Ikhwelo Women’s Advocacy Network, agreed to join and support Embrace Dignity’s work as a collective going forward.

“This is well-developed network with direct access to the legislature, members of parliament, relevant parliamentary portfolio committees, and policy makers at provincial and national level. They also have years of experience of working at these levels and a huge support base as most women’s organisations in this province belong to the network.”

At present, the network focuses on advocacy work related to the Traditional Courts Bill and Child Marriage-Ukuthwala, however, following the meeting, it was agreed that the network would also now start focusing on the issue of prostitution and advocate for the Equality Model Law.

“The network will now incorporate advocacy activities focused on prostitution and sex trafficking in their strategy and work in close collaboration with Masimanyane and Embrace Dignity to do so,” added Meji.

The team also visited Johannesburg to meet with Kwanele provincial organisers to develop and mobilise a Survivor Movement in a four-day workshop held with Survivors of prostitution. The purpose of the workshop was to provide leadership training for the organisers as a step towards building a Survivor Movement.

“We also developed activities that we could rollout under a Kwanele campaign at local and provincial level,” said Meji.

Sixteen female participants, including young and old survivors from the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga and the Western Cape, signed up for the workshop.

“The workshop was a major first milestone in organising and building a movement of survivors who can participate meaningfully in advocacy for law reform. All the women who were at the workshop were Survivors who were working or had worked in the streets. It also became clear that there is a need to bring on board women who are working in brothels and those who are trafficked. It might be hard to achieve this but not impossible and will assist us in our work, as it will bring different nuances and voices to the table,” said Meji.

The participants were also taken through a practical demonstration of how to use different social media platforms for advocacy work.

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Advocating At A Global Level

Drawing on Sweden’s pioneering work in prostitution law reform

Embrace Dignity invited Per-Anders Sunesson, the Swedish Ambassador at Large For Combating Trafficking in Persons, to complement our presentation at a meeting with the Deputy Minister of Justice, the Hon John Jeffery.

“We requested the meeting with the Honourable Mr Jeffery to enquire about the progress in Cabinet on the release of the SALRC’s Report – Project 107 on Adult Prostitution, and to present the advantages of the pioneering Swedish law of partial criminalisation, which criminalises the purchase of sex while ensuring those bought and sold are not criminalised and are supported to exit. Similar laws have now been enacted in seven countries, including France last year and the Republic of Ireland this year. South Africa has the opportunity to be the first country in Africa to enact such a law,” said Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, Executive Director of Embrace Dignity.

Sunesson has a legal background and in recent years has held various positions at the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs, including Head of Social Services, Disability Issues and Childen’s Rights. He has also been the Government Offices Coordinator for issues related to vulnerable EU citizens and human trafficking. The recognition of the close link between human trafficking and prostitution is evident by his appointment as Ambassador at Large for Combating Trafficking in Persons and his focus on effective laws to end prostitution. It is estimated that more than two million people are trafficked into slavery each year. Almost four fifths of the victims – mostly women and underage girls – are sold into the sex industry.

An  evaluation conducted by the Swedish government on of the impact of the Nordic law concluded that 80% of Swedes supported the law and that the police welcomed its implementation. The report revealed that overall levels of violence against women had decreased. Since before the law’s inception, the Swedish government has argued that prostitution is strongly related to violence against women. Since 1999, when the Sex Purchase Act first came into force, there has been no known instance of a person in prostitution murdered in Sweden as a direct result of being in prostitution. The only fatality of a woman in prostitution since 1999 (Eva Marree Smith Kullander, sometimes referred to as Petite Jasmine) was a domestic violence homicide. Kullander  was murdered by her ex-boyfriend in 2013 during a custody visit.

“We took advantage of Sunesson’s presence here in South Africa and arranged for him to meet with key role players in our advocacy for the Equality Model Law. He met with Kwanele to engage with survivors of prostitution and went on a field trip to witness first hand the socio-economic conditions in which they live,” added Madlala-Routledge.

Sunesson also participated in a dialogue with representatives of the criminal justice system, and another to which Embrace Dignity invited members of parliament. In both workshops survivors spoke on the harms of prostitution and their hopes for a life free from exploitation.

“At the same time, we shared the legal options and the advantages of this Swedish law or Equality Law as we like to call it, as it addresses patriarchy and gender inequality. We believe that by focusing on the demand, the law will also help ‘regulate prevent, deter and reduce prostitution’, criteria which were included in the brief of the SALRC investigation.”

The dialogue with the criminal justice community was attended by Judge John Hlophe, the President of the Cape High CourtMajor General (Advocate) Nombuso Portia Khoza, the Western Cape Head of the Hawks (the South African Police Service’s (SAPS) Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation or DPCI); other members of the SAPS; and Cape Town Law Enforcement. Reflecting on the significance of the engagement, Major General Khoza expressed appreciation and keenness to work with civil society organisations like Embrace Dignity to end organised crime in general and sex trafficking in particular.

“Sweden has strong historic ties with South Africa, which was formed post-apartheid, and we look forward to building on this relationship and the visit by Sunesson in advancing our advocacy for the Equality Model Law.”

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SALRC Report On Adult Prostitution Released

“Main recommendation for law reform on adult prostitution will be ineffective”

 On 26 May, the Minister of Justice and Correctional Services, Adv Michael Masutha, and the Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, Mr John Jeffery, released the South African Law Reform Commission’s (SALRC) report on adult prostitution during a press briefing held in Pretoria. While it is  encouraging that the SALRC also recommended the Equality Model legislative approach, which has shown the most success in recent years and  is supported by sex trade survivors and women’s rights groups around the world, it is their recommendation of full criminalisation that is most concerning.

These were some of the concerns raised by Embrace Dignity – a South African, feminist and human rights advocacy NGO campaigning for the partial decriminalisation of adult prostitution –  following the release of the report.

“We welcome the release of the long-awaited SALRC Report on Project 107 – Adult Prostitution and acknowledge that the SALRC has undertaken and analysed considerable research on the legislative options for dealing with adult prostitution. We also believe that the release of the report, which clearly highlights the harms of prostitution and the socio-economic factors that drive prostitution, will enable a more informed public debate on this contentious issue. However, we are deeply concerned by initial feedback that indicates that the report recommends total criminalisation with diversion and are unconvinced that this recommendation will help safeguard women trapped in prostitution and sex trafficking in the long term,” said Ms Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, the Executive Director of Embrace Dignity.

In 2009, following the release of its Discussion Paper: Project 107 – Adult Prostitution for public discussion, the SALRC undertook the task of reviewing the fragmented legislative framework that currently regulates adult prostitution in the country and the need for law reform. Under current South African legislation, voluntary selling and buying of sex as well as all prostitution related acts are criminal offences and is governed by the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act 32 of 2007. The aim of the investigation was also to identify alternative policy and legislative responses that might regulate, prevent, deter or reduce prostitution.

By November 2015, when the SALRC’s report was submitted to the Minister of Justice and Correctional Services, four major legal models had been identified through this extensive six-year public consultation process:

  • total criminalisation of adult prostitution (the status quo in South Africa currently);
  • total decriminalisation of adult prostitution, including pimping and the purchase of sex;
  • legalisation or regulation of prostitution, including pimping and the purchase of sex; and
  • partial decriminalisation (referred to as the Equality Model Law by Embrace Dignity).

According to Madlala-Routledge studies have shown that one of the key drivers of prostitution and sex trafficking is demand.

“While we welcome the continued criminalisation of those buying and profiteering from exploitation through pimping, procuring, promoting and the running of brothels, the continued criminalisation of those bought and sold, the majority of whom are women and girls, re-victimises them and hinders their exit as they also then carry the stigma of being criminals. The recommendation will also not address structural injustice, such as persisting gender inequality, unemployment and poverty, which Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa has characterised as having the ‘long face of an African woman’. These factors drive prostitution and commercial sexual exploitation.”

For the last six years, Embrace Dignity has advocated for and garnered support for partial decriminalisation or what is known across the world as the Equality Model or Nordic Model. This legislative approach, which the organisation has dubbed the Equality Model Law, has shown the most success in recent years and is supported by “sex trade” survivors and women’s rights groups around the world, says Madlala-Routledge. Spearheaded by Sweden in 1999 and followed by Norway, Iceland, Canada, Northern Ireland, France and the Republic of Ireland, the model allows for the decriminalisation of those prostituted and trafficked for sex and provides exiting services and support for those same persons, while criminalising pimping, the operation and ownership of brothels and the buying of  sex. It is supported by both the European Union and the Council of Europe and has been gaining significant traction around the globe.

Embrace Dignity has also worked closely with those being prostituted and trafficked for sex in South Africa to better understand and respond to the realities that they face on the ground.

“Our recommendation is not made lightly and is driven by what we have witnessed as we engage with prostituted and trafficked persons and assist survivors to exit. This is why we vocally support a partial decriminalisation model as part of a comprehensive set of interventions to address violence against women, patriarchy and gender inequality. However, we are not suggesting a cookie cutter approach, but rather an amended form of this law which also takes into consideration the socio-economic and constitutional context in this country.”

To this end, Embrace Dignity has built extensive networks with national and international partners such as the Masimanyane Women’s Support Centre in the Eastern Cape, Equality Now, CATW International (The Coalition Against the Trafficking in Women) and Donor Direct Action, and is also a member of CAP International (The Coalition for the Abolition of Prostitution).

Apart from its advocacy work, Embrace Dignity educates the public about the harms of prostitution, the stigma and further victimisation that women who are prostituted or trafficked for sex face within society. The NGO also supports those who wish to exit by providing those women with safe spaces to share their stories, counselling, personal development plans, work skills and life skills training. Additionally it supports survivor initiatives such as Kwanele, a movement of women consisting of survivors of prostitution who are also advocating for the Equality Law, and SESP, a survivor led initiative to offer opportunities to exit prostitution. It has also supported individual survivors like Grizelda Grootboom, who has written a book called EXIT on her experiences of being trafficked and being driven to a life of prostitution and drugs and who continues to speak out on public platforms about the harms of prostitution.

“At a moment in our country’s history, when South African society and government are starting to show signs of uniting against men’s violence against women and girls, we need more activists from our communities campaigning for the rights of women and girls being prostituted and trafficked for sex. Prostitution perpetuates men’s violence against women and girls by objectifying women and undermining gender equality. It also entrenches patriarchy which in turn perpetuates and ingrains prostitution – a vicious cycle. It is our hope and that of the ‘sex trade’ survivors we work with that the SALRC report becomes a central discussion point in a society where violence against women and girls risks becoming normalised.”


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