Prostitution Is Gender Based Violence

Embrace Dignity proposes a coherent, rational solution to a fatal flaw in the Strategic Plan on Gender Based Violence (GBV) and Femicide

This op-Ed was written by our Founder Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge

There is a fatal flaw in the proposed National Strategic Plan on Gender Based Violence and Femicide released by the government in May 2020. The flaw is the implied recommendation for the decriminalisation of “sex work”, which we prefer to call the system of prostitution as it forms part of systems of oppression, including patriarchy, classism, sexism and racism. As outlined in the statement made by UN Undersecretary and Executive Director of UN Women, Dr Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, “those who buy (sexual) ‘services’ are perpetrators of violence against women, and this is who the law should hold accountable. We agree with UN Women that prostitution is one of the worst forms of men’s violence against women.

We strongly assert that to include the decriminalisation of ‘sex work’ in the call to “revisit and fast track all outstanding laws and bills that relate to GBV and Femicide” is fatally flawed for the following reasons:

  •  There is no law or Bill on our statutes that deals with the decriminalisation of ‘sex work’. The term ‘sex work’ was invented by the sex industry as a way to try and normalise prostitution. The use of the term is just a slight of hand to opportunistically introduce an idea that has not even been debated in the country.
  • The call seems to have been made opportunistically at the end with no discussion, consultation and consensus on this issue in the process of drawing up the strategic plan.
  •  Referring to the prostitution system as “sex work” is opportunistic and an attempt to normalise an exploitative and coerced transaction, where the buyer is exercising power and money to gain access to another’s body for their own sexual gratification.
  • Prostitution is neither sex nor work, but coerced consent and exploitation. While some may argue it is consensual, the fact is that it is coerced by the money and it is therefore not free or mutually fulfilling.
  •  It does not fit the ILO definition of decent work, as it is exploitative and often violent. The seller has to numb and disassociate themselves to survive the pain and repeated bodily invasion.
  • Prostitution is inherently harmful. It cannot be made safe.

What to do about Prostitution

What to do about prostitution is a controversial issue, sometimes referred to as a wedge issue because it divides all parties and sectors. This explains why political parties avoid doing something about it. The lives of arguably the most marginalised members of our society, the ’sex workers’, are daily put at risk at the hands of men who abuse their power to buy their access to women’s bodies, and corrupt law enforcement officers. Fortunately this issue has come to the fore following the Presidential Summit held in November 2018 and the publication of the National Strategic Plan to End Gender Based Violence and Femicide by our government in May 2020.

While we agree that the bought, sold and exploited must be decriminalised and assisted to find alternative forms of employment, we totally disagree with the call to also decriminalise the sex exploitation industry as a whole. Those exploiting the position of vulnerability caused by factors such as poverty, childhood sexual abuse or abandonment or race and gender inequality should remain criminalised. Focusing on ending the demand and supporting exit from prostitution as part of a comprehensive strategy to abolish the oppressive system is the only effective strategy for addressing the violence inherent in the prostitution system.

Prostitution is a complex issue. While some see prostitution as a harmless transaction between consenting adults, others consider It to be inherently harmful and exploitative. Dealing with prostitution is not simply a matter of morality. It is an issue of human rights. Prostitution is one of the oldest forms of oppression, targeting the most marginalised in society.

The debate on prostitution needs to be wide-ranging and informed by considerations of what’s best for our country and in line with our constitutional and international obligations. We need to build national consensus and put aside our personal preferences on the issue, in the same way we have dealt with other controversial social issues, like the choice on termination of pregnancy or smoking in public places. We need to engage, not just those who are directly affected. We need to approach it with cool heads. We need to engage from an informed position and not simply from a knee jerk reaction to unemployment and poverty, or a laissez faire approach of commodification of everything that sells. We need to look at the socio-economic drivers of prostitution as well as the research on the harms of system of prostitution and learn from the experience of countries that have gone before us in dealing with this issue. We must relate this debate to the context of high unemployment, high levels of violence against women and girls, gender inequality and poverty. The debate must involve those with direct experience of the lived reality of the harms of the system of prostitution, whose voices have been missing in the debate so far. We have much to learn from their lived experience of the harms and trauma they have survived in the prostitution system.

Embrace Dignity is fully behind this unprecedented national thrust to eliminate gender based violence and femicide, a societal problem of unimaginable proportions, and a national disaster. We would in fact wish for the President to have declared a state of disaster, considering that the rapes and killing of women in South Africa is one of the highest in the world. Catharine MacKinnon (1993, 1994, 2006) a leading legal scholar, author and campaigner for women’s rights has equated the harm of rape to torture and genocide.

The Declaration makes overarching commitments focusing on the underlying factors that contribute to gender based violence. Commitment 10 states: “A targeted, social behaviour change programme to address patriarchal values and norms and structural drivers of gender-based violence …targeted at all sectors, including individuals, families, communities, civil servants, religious and traditional leaders, the private sector, the media community and others that are strategically placed to influence attitudes, behaviours and practices, supported by an effective, resourced communication strategy” (Declaration of the Presidential Summit Against Gender-Based Violence and Femicide). The South African Law Reform Commission has produced a report of a review of the current laws on adult prostitution and has released a report with two draft bills, which must still be tabled and debated in our parliament.

The SALRC report dismissed total decriminalisation as a policy and legislative framework and said this would be disastrous for our country with our levels of violence against women, high unemployment and poverty. The decriminalisation of “sex work” would be counter-productive as it would lead to the expansion of the exploitative industry, which is already getting out of control.

Sex sells

Prostitution is a lucrative ‘industry’. There are huge profits made by the sex industry. A research report conducted in 2014 estimated the sex markets in the United States to be worth anywhere from $40 million to $290 million (close to R5 billion) in seven cities profiled in the government-sponsored report by the Urban Institute.” As they say, sex sells. A survey by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) indicates that sexual exploitation rakes in $99 Billion globally and accounts for 66% of the human trafficking industry, of which forced labour accounts for 28,7% and Domestic servitude, 5,3%. (Source ILO Human Trafficking Centre). The prostitution system is one of the worst forms of violence, that some women and girls face at the hands of men who buy them for sex and those who take advantage of the position of vulnerability, caused by a toxic combination of systemic oppression and patriarchy. The system of prostitution – sometimes opportunistically referred to as “sex work” – is driven by patriarchy and men’s feelings of entitlement to women’s bodies, and the system in turn perpetuates patriarchy – a vicious cycle.

A comparison of the different legal frameworks

There are three legal approaches to regulating prostitution. Prohibition, Legalisation/Decriminalisation and Abolition. These approaches are completely different and depend on national policy and the expected outcome.

  • Prohibition refers to the legislative framework where all aspects of the prostitution system are criminalised, including the buying and selling of sex, pimping and brothel keeping. This is the status quo in South Africa and most of the world. As we have seen in our country, prohibition has not successfully curbed prostitution. In fact all indications are that it is growing, especially under our conditions of high unemployment, poverty, patriarchy and gender based violence. Prohibition has not examined the fundamental socio-economic factors that drive prostitution. Instead, it punishes those that are already victimised by poverty, childhood abuse and homelessness, as well as unequal gender relations.

  • Legalisation/Decriminalisation refers to a spectrum of legal approaches including regulation. The buying and selling or sex are not a crime. Legalisation imposes certain limitations, including the requirement for registration of all those providing sexual ‘services’ and defining ‘red light zones’ – specific areas where prostitution is allowed. Decriminalisation refers to an approach where there are no laws restricting the buying and selling of sex except for regulating its activities .

  • Abolition recognises prostitution as a system of oppression and puts measures in place for its eradication.

Total decriminalisation has not worked in New Zealand, the only country that has adopted such a legal framework and policy. In New Zealand, brothel-keeping, living off the proceeds of someone else’s prostitution, and street solicitation are legal in New Zealand and have been since the Prostitution Reform Act (PRA) 2003 came into effect. It is important to note that the PRA was passed by 60 votes to 59 with one abstention. No other country has followed the New Zealand experiment, and as Melissa Farley has pointed out, in New Zealand decriminalisation has not stopped the violence, stigma, prejudice, and more importantly under-age prostitution has increased.

As shown in countries that have chosen the legalisation route, like Germany, The Netherlands and some states in Australia and the United States of America, one of the consequences of legalisation or total decriminalisation is the significant increase and extent of the prostitution system, as well as an increase in organised crime and human trafficking.

Germany, which passed a law legalising prostitution in 2001, has seen a massive growth in the sex industry, as documented in an article published by the Economist. In a report titled: “Prostitution in Germany: A giant Teutonic brothel: Has the liberalisation of the oldest profession gone too far?” the Economist compares Germany and Sweden’s legal approaches.

Since 2001, prostitution is legal in Germany, but different states and cities enforce different limitations on where and how it can happen. The law in Germany aimed to remove the stigma of prostitution by for example, giving those selling sex full rights to health insurance, pensions and other benefits.

According to the law Germany those selling sex are required to register with the government and undergo regular health checks. However, according to DW news, only about 33,000 of those selling sex have officially registered in Germany, out of a government estimate of 400,000. This shows that legalisation has not removed the stigma. It is not clear whether the promise of better health has materialised, especially as exemplified by the real danger of contracting the Corona virus in addition to sexually transmitted infections and physical and mental trauma related to the sex, where the levels of post and ongoing traumatic stress are recorded as very high.

Two years before Germany went the legalisation route, Sweden pioneered a different approach, known as the Swedish model, Nordic Model, Sex buyer law or Equality model. The Sex Purchase Act in 1999, was part of a basket of legislative measures for tackling gender based violence. The Equality Model is a form of partial decriminalisation that decriminalises only those selling sex (mostly women) and gives them a right to safety and bodily integrity. Simultaneously, it criminalises those buying sex (from men) and those who profit from the exploitation of the vulnerability of others. Since 1999, the Equality Law has gained traction and has been adapted and adopted by a number of countries, including Norway (2009), Iceland(2009), Canada(2014), Northern Ireland(2015), France(2016), Ireland(2017), and Israel(2018).

The Equality Law is the only clear and coherent strategy for reducing the demand for prostitution. It would be in our country’s interest to consider the Equality model adapted to our context of high levels of violence against women, high unemployment and high levels of inequality. Fortunately we are half-way there. In 2007, parliament amended the Sexual Offences Act and criminalised the buying of sex. Section 11 of the 2007 Sexual Offences Amendment Act prohibits engaging sexual services of persons 18 years or older. What we need to do now is to decriminalise the bought, sold and exploited and support them to exit, while retaining the criminalisation of all the other aspects of the prostitution system.

There are indications of growing support for the Equality Model in South Africa.

  •   In December 2017, the ANC adopted a resolution at its 54th Elective Conference calling for a process to determine the societal norm on this issue. Resolution 2.28 states: “The calls to decriminalise Sex work must be subjected to a high level discussion and engagement with relevant multiple stakeholders, and to continue to engage society on this to determine the societal norm. Sex workers must be protected.”
  • In June 2018 the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) unanimously adopted the Embrace Dignity Petition Report and the Study Tour to Sweden Report and called on the Minister of Justice to study the reports and consider the Swedish Model for dealing with prostitution. This was in response to the Embrace Dignity petition. In 2014 Embrace Dignity petitioned parliament to set up a multiparty ad-hoc committee of both houses to investigate the harms of prostitution and legislative frameworks that would address these harms.
  • The High Level Panel on the Assessment of Key Legislation and the Acceleration of Fundamental Change Report Recommendations calls for: “Parliament should use its powers to introduce the following legislative changes to the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Act 32 of 2007 with regard to protecting those who sell sex. The Act should be amended to decriminalise prostitution in order to remove the unintended consequences arising from the criminalisation of prostitution for those who sell sex. Other legislative provisions contained in national, provincial and municipal legislation criminalising prostitution for those who sell sex or making it an offence should also be amended. 
  • The South African Law Reform Commission (SALRC) Report includes partial decriminalisation (a form of the Equality Model) as one of the two legal options in their report. The SALRC completely dismissed total decriminalisation.
  •  Minister Masutha said: “Looking at it of course from a South African perspective, looking at where we have high rates of poverty and looking at all these factors and what would be best suited to South Africa and they are essentially finding that decriminalisation is not suited or the best ideal for South Africa.”

Minister Masutha called for a national dialogue on this complex issue. The lack of clarity on national policy on prostitution has resulted in confusion within the criminal justice system. The release of the South African Law Reform Commission (SALRC) Report released in May 2017 by the Minister of Justice and Correctional Services, Adv Michael Masutha, and the Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, Mr John Jeffery gives us an opportunity to debate policy on adult prostitution from an informed understanding of all the issues involved. Often people pronounce on this issue from gut feeling or other reasons, without the relevant information and research, which we now have at our disposal.

The aim of the investigation by the SALRC was to “review the fragmented legislative framework of all statutory and common law sexual offences.” The statutory provisions under review are contained in the Sexual Offences Act 23 of 1958 (The Sexual Offences Act). The secondary aim was “to consider the need for law reform in relation to adult prostitution and to identify alternative policy and legislative responses that might regulate, prevent, deter or reduce prostitution.”

The SALRC indicated that “as there are a range of legal responses to prostitution in open and democratic societies, it is essentially a matter of policy to decide which legislative model accords with governments‘ goals and strategies.

After considerable consultation and research, the SALRC presented its report to the government in 2015. The South African Law Reform Commission’s (SALRC) report on adult prostitution was released during a press briefing held in Pretoria on 26 May 2020. The report carries two legislative recommendations. The first option which is the Commission’s preferred option is to retain a totally criminalised legal framework. This option is coupled with an opportunity for people in prostitution to divert out of the criminal justice system so that they can access supportive resources and systems in order to exit prostitution if they should choose to do so.

The second option favours the partial criminalisation of adult prostitution. This option criminalises all role-players engaged in prostitution with the exception of the person providing the sexual service.

The first option is also known as prohibition. This is the present law in South Africa. As we all know, prohibition has not worked, even with diversion. Its main flaw is that it does not address the underlying socio-economic drivers of prostitution. Instead, it punishes the victims while those exploiting them are left off the hook.

Reflecting on the drivers of prostitution Masutha said: “The report also notes that the prevalence of prostitution in our society and the inherent exploitation associated with it are primarily social phenomena, which reflect deep-seated economic and sexual inequalities. This situation is perpetuated by the limitations in the laws that are supposed to deal with these social issues. For this reason, the report contains both legislative and non-legislative recommendations” (Masutha, 2017: Media briefing on Adult Prostitution Report).

Also known as partial decriminalisation, the second option is preferable, as it shifts the burden of criminality and stigma from those selling sex out of desperation and it gives them an opportunity to leave the exploitative prostitution system. It targets on eliminating the demand by criminalising the purchase of sex and the profiteering by third parties such as pimps and brothel keepers. Embrace Dignity has modified the bill along the lines of the Equality Model, suitable for South African conditions, which we have shared with the government, and we are ready to make submissions when the government tables the bill in parliament.

The Equality Model is the only coherent strategy for addressing prostitution and its harms. As stated by Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women, the law should target those buying sex or profiting from the exploitation of women. As she puts it, they are the perpetrators of violence against women. In relation to commitment 17, we are most concerned that the broad brush approach of decriminalising the whole ‘sex work’ industry, is counterproductive and will perpetuate patriarchy, and increase violence and the objectification of women. By passing a law that targets the demand, Sweden has shown us that it is possible to change public opinion and behaviour. They have twenty years of experience to prove it. Having passed the Sex Purchase Act in 1999, Sweden has seen a reduction in both street prostitution and human trafficking. The law has shifted the stigma and accountability from the bought, exploited and sold, to the exploiters and perpetrators. It is no longer cool to buy sex in Sweden. We urge our government to adopt the Equality Model as part of effectively dealing with gender based violence a fatal blow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mainstreaming Pimpland in the NYC Subway System

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

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

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

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

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

So, what is the story? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Op-Ed: A Call for South Africa to pass the Equality Law now and END Gender Based Violence

This opinion article was written by our Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge for Sunday Independent, it was published on Sunday Independent on the 8th September 2019.

That South Africa is a war zone for women and children is beyond question. Nothing could have driven this message home more effectively than the brutal murder and rape of Uyinene Mrwetyana, a 19-year old UCT student who had gone missing after she went to collect a parcel from the Post Office. President Ramaphosa has called it a “watershed moment” for South Africa as we try to grapple with the pandemic of gender-based violence. Despite the national outcry, the killing of women continues unabated.

At Embrace Dignity we are campaigning for the Equality Law to end the system of prostitution and its objectification of women and related gender based violence. The Equality Law is also known as the Nordic/Swedish Sex Buyer Law or, loosely, partial decriminalisation. It is the only coherent and comprehensive strategy for dealing with the system of prostitution and protecting women. The system of prostitution is a societal problem and not a private matter between two consenting adults. It is exploitative, discriminatory and violent. It is deeply embedded in inequality and it perpetuates patriarchy.

In the Equality Law those who are bought and sold for sex are not criminalised and are offered support for exit. The buying of sex is criminalised, so too are pimping, brothel keeping and third party profiteering. This shifts the criminality and stigma from vulnerable women and girls, to those who exploit and exercise financial power over them.

The Equality Law targets the demand for prostitution, which in turn provides the demand for sex trafficking. It importantly carries the message that women’s bodies are not commodities and objects of men’s sexual gratification.

Sweden pioneered the law in 1999, and there has been a shift in public attitudes. The majority of men no longer consider it cool to buy sex, and those selling sex partner with the police in fighting any abuse and organised crime. Street prostitution has been halved and sex trafficking is almost non-existent.

Norway and Iceland (2009), Canada (2014), Northern Ireland (2015), France (2016), Ireland (2017) and Israel (2018) have since adopted this law. South Africa could be the first African country to adopt it and join this growing trend of law reform to address patriarchy and promote gender equality, and more importantly to end the commodification of women and gender based violence.

Within the context of poverty and high levels of unemployment, South Africa needs to seriously consider the Equality Law as the only rational policy choice to end gender based violence.

There has been progress with the South African Law Reform Commission (SALRC) releasing its final report on Adult Prostitution. It includes a form of the Equality Law as Option One. The Commission strongly rejected total decriminalisation as an option and outlined among the reasons the fear that it would expand the sex industry and the extent of abuse and gender based violence instead of curbing it.

The Report of the High Level Panel, known as the Motlanthe Report, called forParliament to use its powers to amend the present Act to “decriminalise prostitution in order to remove the unintended consequences arising from the criminalisation of prostitution for those who sell sex”.This is consistent with the Equality Law as it calls for the removal the unintended consequences arising from the criminalisation of prostitution for those who sell sex. It is significant that they do not include the removal of the consequences of the criminality for those buy sex, pimp or run brothels.

At its 54th Elective Conference the ANC passed a resolution that “The calls to decriminalise Sex work must be subjected to a high level discussion and engagement with relevant multiple stakeholders, and to continue to engage society on this to determine the societal norm. Sex workers must be protected.”This  is consistent with the Equality Law, and it is significant that it does not state that sex buyers, pimps and brothels must be protected from the law.

In addition Embrace Dignity petitioned Parliament to investigate the harms of prostitution and legislative frameworks that would address these harms. The Petitions Committee of the NCOP issued its final report on our Petition after public hearings and a trip to Sweden to study the Equality Law there. They unanimously adopted the report.

The present prohibitionist  system of total criminalisation, even with diversion, is not the answer as it does not address the fundamental factors that drive women and other marginalised bodies into prostitution and it does not have a clear strategy to address the issue. It is those who are harmed and exploited in the system of prostitution who are inevitably blamed and stigmatised.

Total decriminalisation or the ‘sex work’ position would be a disaster for South Africa as it would expand the exploitative sex industry and give free reign to the abuse of the vulnerable. It would turn South Africa into a pimp state. Prostitution cannot be considered work. It would be wrong for the poor to be offered prostitution as a solution to the problem of unemployment.

My call to South Africa is to pass the Equality Law now and end gender based violence. Do not turn South Africa into a pimp state.

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