Nordic model may be best way to free women from sex trade
South Africa has a rare opportunity to act against the perpetrators rather than the victims of prostitution, writes Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge
WHILE it is widely acknowledged that laws governing prostitution have done little for the wellbeing of people in the sex trade in this country, it has taken several years for any progress to be made in amending these laws.
The release of the South African Law Reform Commission’s report, with recommendations on changing the existing laws, is therefore welcomed, but the recommendation by the SALRC of a policy of criminalisation with diversion is a weak attempt to provide some support for those who wish to exit the sex trade.
It does not address the unspeakable violence that those selling sex — the vast majority of whom are women and girls — will continue to face.
In this country, those who are bought and sold for sex — many of whom are victims of sex trafficking — are regularly targeted by police.
Little to no government support is given to those who wish to exit prostitution and although women regularly enter the sex trade as children, no connection is made by policymakers that the same women, who are treated as criminals after they turn 18, are victims who have been exploited for sex since they were first prostituted as minors.
In effect, these women are victims one day and criminals the next.
For women like Grizelda Grootboom, who was trafficked into the sex trade, the SALRC’s recommendations do not bode well. Over the past few years, Grootboom has become the familiar face of the ordeal that trafficked women face.
She was entrapped in prostitution in Johannesburg for 12 years. During this time she faced extreme violence — often from police officers — and eventually fell pregnant.
One night, while she was asleep in her madam’s brothel, she was drugged by the madam, who then forcibly removed the foetus from her womb.
South Africa’s 1957 Sexual Offences Act and related bylaws criminalise all aspects of the sex trade and ignore the power imbalance between those who are bought and sold for sex and those who buy and make money from the sexual exploitation of others. Similar laws exist across Africa.
For several years now, the SALRC has been committed to issuing its report. From various committee meetings on the issue it has been clear that the SALRC recognises prostitution in South Africa as “a very complex intersection of social and economic factors in which poverty, unemployment and inequality were key drivers”. We agree. It is, however, encouraging, that the commission has also recommended the legislative approach that has shown the most success in recent years and which is supported by sex trade survivors and women’s rights groups around the world.
Spearheaded by Sweden in 1999 and followed by Norway, Iceland, Canada, Northern Ireland, France and the Republic of Ireland, the Nordic or equality model, as it is known, decriminalises and provides exit services and support to those who are bought and sold for sex, while criminalising pimping, the operation and ownership of brothels and the buying of sex.
It is supported by both the EU and the Council of Europe and has been gaining significant traction around the globe.
Also referred to as the “third way”, it is a creative alternative in the middle ground between the failed legalisation approach used in Germany and full criminalisation, which is in place in South Africa.
It recognises the high level of violence within the sex trade and responds to the human rights of people involved in prostitution by focusing on the demand, thereby curtailing the extent of both prostitution and trafficking.
According to research in France this year, 937 arrests of buyers of sex were made in the first year of the new law. No arrests were made of women for prostitution after midApril last year — down from about 1 500 the year before.
Critics who had previously stated that such a law could not be effectively implemented in France have been proved wrong.
There are positive reports too from Sweden, the pioneer of this approach. People involved in prostitution now view the country as safer, and the number of sex buyers has fallen in recent years, mainly due to fear of arrest. Research shows that only 7.9% of Swedish men bought sex in 2008 compared to 13.9% in 1996.
Meanwhile, other countries have experimented with regulating or legalising the entire sex trade — including pimping, the operation and ownership of brothels and the buying of sex.
In 2001, the Netherlands was the most high-profile example of this approach, followed by Germany one year later.
Both countries have seen damning results. The scale of the trade itself and sex trafficking have increased.
Germany has been described as a “giant Teutonic brothel” which raises its tax revenue from the exploitation of women. Women are marketed as commodities that can be bought at a flat rate, along with beer and bratwurst.
The fact that women are effectively treated as produce is deeply offensive to those who are bought for sex, and affects how women are valued and treated in the general population.
The full legalisation or decriminalisation of the sex trade has meant that pimps and brothel operators can run their establishments with impunity, while no exiting services or support are given to those trapped in prostitution.
It is assumed that this highly exploitative industry will somehow self-regulate.
It doesn’t. Instead, it conceals the extreme violence experienced by those selling sex.
In 2007, a German study concluded that almost every single woman involved in prostitution had suffered sexual harassment and physical violence and that half of those interviewed had symptoms of severe depression.
In another report, by American clinical psychologist Melissa Farley, 68% of a group of women selling sex in San Francisco met the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder. This is a higher level than that found by most studies of war veterans.
Prostitution in the South African context is one in which violence against women is widespread.
However, our constitution supports an approach to sex trade legislation which is consistent with the equality model.
At a moment in our country’s history when society is starting to show signs of uniting against violence against women and girls, we need more activists campaigning for the rights of women and girls who are being prostituted and trafficked for sex.
Prostitution perpetuates violence against women and girls by objectifying women and undermining gender equality. Prostitution also perpetuates and entrenches patriarchy, while patriarchy perpetuates and entrenches prostitution — a vicious cycle.
It is hoped that the SALRC report becomes a central discussion point in a society where violence against women and girls is at risk of becoming normalised.
Women and girls like Grizelda Grootboom have been left without any support for far too long. I want to be proud of our country’s commitment to this issue and hope we will set a positive precedent for other African countries to follow.
Madlala-Routledge is a former deputy minister of health and is the executive director of Embrace Dignity, a South African feminist and human rights advocacy NGO that helps women exit prostitution and sex trafficking. Embrace Dignity is the South African partner of the international women’s group Donor Direct Action
Germany a ‘giant Teutonic brothel’ which raises tax revenue from the exploitation of women
REFORM NEEDED: A sex worker waits for customers. South African law criminalises all players involved in prostitution