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I have never met a woman who grew up wanting to get into prostitution. I have never met anyone in the sex trade who was happy to be there, writes Mickey Meji.
Women in prostitution do not "wake up" one day and "choose" to be prostituted. Prostitution is chosen for us by the injustices which set the stage for us – including but not limited to our colonial past, apartheid, poverty, continued inequalities and past sexual and physical abuse.
As a woman with first-hand experience of the commercial sex trade and its harms and dangers, I know that those who sell sex do not benefit from the oppressive regime of full criminalisation of the system of prostitution – which currently exists in South Africa. All this policy has achieved is to increase women's vulnerability to violence from the men who buy them in the system of prostitution and the pimps and brothel-keepers who sell and exploit us for financial gain. The hazardous conditions faced by prostituted women are made even worse by laws, which treat us as criminals – as "the scum of society".
Nor would women in prostitution benefit from a regime of full decriminalisation of the sex trade, which exists in countries such as New Zealand, where there is no protection at all for those many women trapped in it.
Prostitution is in itself an embodiment of violence and sexual exploitation – one of the worst forms of women's inequality and a violation of our basic human rights.
Survivors of the sex trade want to be fully decriminalised and given exiting services and support. However, extending decriminalisation to pimps, brothel-owners, and sex buyers would only further conceal the abuse and violence that (mainly poor and black) women experience at their hands. Such a policy would also send a message that men cannot be blamed or held accountable for the violence they inflict on the women involved. Sex buyers, pimps and brothel-owners must be held fully accountable for their actions.
As we celebrate the 16 days of activism on violence against women and children it would be important to have a full picture of how and when entry into the system of prostitution happens.
To begin with, many of the women who are bought, sold and exploited in this very exploitative trade entered as young girls – some as young as thirteen years of age. Those who buy them for sex are always adult men – as are those who sell them for profit. This shows the enormous imbalance of power between those who are vulnerable and those who are the opposite.
I have never met a woman who grew up wanting to get into prostitution. I have never met anyone in the sex trade who was happy to be there. Everyone just wanted to get out and get "proper and decent" employment.
Unless South Africa recognises the realities of the system of prostitution we will never be able to make things better. Sex trade survivors want partial decriminalisation, known as the Swedish or equality model. This decriminalises and mandates exiting services and support to prostituted individuals, while maintaining penalties on pimps, brothel-owners and sex buyers. Pioneered in Sweden in 1999 it has already been adopted by Norway, Iceland, Canada, Northern Ireland, France and the Republic of Ireland.
This is the only policy which would have helped me while in prostitution. It is the only one that is based on the principle of gender equality and which recognises the various other inequalities that cause women to enter the sex trade.
South Africa needs to catch up with this trend. I am hopeful that we can do so and continue our journey towards equality for each and every one of our citizens.
- Mickey Meji is advocacy manager for Embrace Dignity, an organisation which works to end commercial sexual exploitation in South Africa.
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