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

Sunday Times - - OPINION -

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

Pic­ture: FREDLIN ADRIAAN

RE­FORM NEEDED: A sex worker waits for cus­tomers. South African law crim­i­nalises all play­ers in­volved in pros­ti­tu­tion

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