Our fight against the criminalisation of prostituted persons

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

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

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

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

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

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