‘Equal­ity model’ of­fers the best chance to deal with chal­lenges posed by pros­ti­tu­tion


At the Sum­mit Against Gen­der-Based Vi­o­lence and Femi­cide held last month, Pres­i­dent Cyril Ramaphosa praised Ch­eryl Zondi, a vic­tim of Nige­rian pas­tor Tim­o­thy Omo­toso, for her brave tes­ti­mony. Groomed from age 14 as a sex slave, she is one of the many sur­vivors of sex­ual ex­ploita­tion who are be­gin­ning to break the si­lence on this is­sue.

The event con­cluded with a dec­la­ra­tion by the pres­i­dent on ac­tions to end vi­o­lence against women and girls — in­clud­ing pros­ti­tu­tion. It rec­om­mended re­vis­it­ing and fast-track­ing “all out­stand­ing laws and bills that re­late to gen­der-based vi­o­lence and femi­cide, in­clud­ing de­crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion of sex work”.

Sur­vivors of the sex trade and Em­brace Dig­nity, an NGO that chal­lenges gen­der-based in­equal­ity, use the term “sex trade” in­stead of “sex work”, recog­nis­ing the in­her­ent ex­ploita­tion of pros­ti­tu­tion. The term “de­crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion” is not straight­for­ward ei­ther. Some peo­ple want not only pros­ti­tuted in­di­vid­u­als, but also pimps, brothel own­ers and sex buy­ers de­crim­i­nalised. How­ever, this only serves to in­crease the scale of pros­ti­tu­tion and helps to con­ceal the vi­o­lence that women in pros­ti­tu­tion have to en­dure.

The sec­ond mean­ing, which we agree with, is ef­fec­tively par­tial de­crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion. It means only pros­ti­tuted in­di­vid­u­als are de­crim­i­nalised, and pro­vided with ex­it­ing ser­vices and sup­port, while puni­tive mea­sures are kept against pimps, broth­el­keep­ers and sex buy­ers. This is re­ferred to as the Swedish or “equal­ity model”, and has been adopted in Nor­way, Ice­land, France, Ire­land and Canada. It is based on the prin­ci­ple of gen­der equal­ity.

Em­brace Dig­nity agrees with Ramaphosa that get­ting the law right on pros­ti­tu­tion is para­mount. His state­ment fol­lows lengthy pub­lic con­sul­ta­tion, which was com­pleted in mid-2017. At that point, the minister of jus­tice re­leased the South African Law Re­form Com­mis­sion’s Re­port on Adult Pros­ti­tu­tion. This re­jected blan­ket de­crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion of all as­pects of the sex trade on the ba­sis that pros­ti­tu­tion is ex­ploita­tive and harm­ful. In­stead, it con­cluded that “within the South African con­text of high lev­els of gen­der vi­o­lence and in­equal­ity cou­pled with the chal­lenge of poverty, women are par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble to be­ing ex­ploited in pros­ti­tu­tion”. It rec­om­mended the equal­ity model as one of two pos­si­ble pol­icy op­tions.

Fol­low­ing a pe­ti­tion to parliament from Em­brace Dig­nity, the Na­tional Coun­cil of Prov­inces (NCOP) also adopted a res­o­lu­tion in sup­port of the equal­ity model. This was a unan­i­mous dec­la­ra­tion from all nine prov­inces and had sup­port from all political par­ties. It built on a 2015 High-Level Panel on the As­sess­ment of Key Leg­is­la­tion es­tab­lished by the Speak­ers’ Fo­rum to re­view aparthei­dera leg­is­la­tion, which also rec­om­mended that parliament should de­crim­i­nalise pros­ti­tuted in­di­vid­u­als. This po­si­tion is also in line with the ANC’s 54th con­fer­ence res­o­lu­tions, which in­cluded a call for pub­lic en­gage­ment to es­tab­lish the so­ci­etal norm on pros­ti­tu­tion and the pro­tec­tion of pros­ti­tuted in­di­vid­u­als.

The gen­eral shift in pol­icy at na­tional level has been heav­ily in­flu­enced by the lived ex­pe­ri­ences of South African sex-trade sur­vivors. Grizelda Groot­boom’s book Exit tells the true story of her gang rape as a nine-year-old. She was taken into state care until the age of 18, at which point she was left home­less. Shortly af­ter­wards she was found by a pimp and traf­ficked into pros­ti­tu­tion. Her story has res­onated with both the pub­lic as well as pol­i­cy­mak­ers. Mickey Meji, an­other sur­vivor ac­tivist with first-hand ex­pe­ri­ence of the vi­o­lence within pros­ti­tu­tion, has also led much of the dis­cus­sion sur­round­ing the fact that it is usu­ally poor and black women, chil­dren and trans­gen­der peo­ple who are trapped in the sex trade.

Mean­while, al­most all buy­ers are men. This clear im­bal­ance of power re­flects how deeply en­trenched pros­ti­tu­tion is within pa­tri­archy, and how it is di­rectly linked with gen­der and other forms of in­equal­ity. In 2016 a study pub­lished in the Mail & Guardian showed that men who buy sex are al­most three times more likely to abuse women — not only in pros­ti­tu­tion, but also out­side of it.

SA now has an op­por­tu­nity to show lead­er­ship and en­act sex trade laws based on the equal­ity model. This would make us the first coun­try on the African con­ti­nent to do so, which may help to in­flu­ence our neigh­bours to fol­low suit.

An­swer­ing a ques­tion in parliament in May last year, Ramaphosa said: “Let us de­bate this mat­ter … and see how best we come out as South Africans and in the end it’s go­ing to be a South African so­lu­tion to a global chal­lenge and prob­lem”.

The pres­i­dent’s re­solve is com­mend­able, but if not fol­lowed through with mean­ing­ful ac­tion at par­lia­men­tary level, the lives of the many women and girls trapped in pros­ti­tu­tion will con­tinue to be put at ex­treme risk.

Mad­lala-Rout­ledge is the founder of Em­brace Dig­nity, a women’s hu­man rights and abo­li­tion­ist or­gan­i­sa­tion that chal­lenges the in­equal­i­ties op­press­ing women and girls through pros­ti­tu­tion, sex­ual ex­ploita­tion and sex­ual abuse

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