‘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