Law reform report on sex trade will not safeguard women trapped in prostitution

Criminalised Prostitutes work in the Copacabana neighbourhood of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Picture: Douglas Engle/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Criminalised Prostitutes work in the Copacabana neighbourhood of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Picture: Douglas Engle/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Embrace Dignity – a South African, feminist and human rights advocacy non-governmental organisation campaigning for the partial decriminalisation of adult prostitution – is unconvinced that recommendations made in a South African Law Reform Commission (SALRC) report will help safeguard women trapped in prostitution and sex trafficking in the long term.

Minister of Justice and Correctional Services Michael Masutha and the Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development John Jeffery briefed the media on the SALRC’s report on adult prostitution yesterday.

The report suggested four major legal models: a total criminalisation of adult prostitution (the status quo in South Africa currently); total decriminalisation of adult prostitution, including pimping and the purchase of sex; legalisation or regulation of prostitution, including pimping and the purchase of sex; and partial decriminalisation.

“We welcome the release of the long-awaited SALRC report on Project 107 – Adult Prostitution and acknowledge that the SALRC has undertaken and analysed considerable research on the legislative options for dealing with adult prostitution,” said Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, the executive director of Embrace Dignity.

She added that “we also believe that the release of the report, which clearly highlights the harms of prostitution and the socioeconomic factors that drive prostitution, will enable a more informed public debate on this contentious issue. However, we are deeply concerned by initial feedback that indicates that the report recommends total criminalisation with diversion”.

Madlala-Routledge said in 2009, following the release of its Discussion Paper: Project 107 – Adult Prostitution for public discussion, that the SALRC undertook the task of reviewing the fragmented legislative framework that currently regulates adult prostitution in the country and the need for law reform. Under current South African legislation, voluntary selling and buying of sex as well as all prostitution-related acts are criminal offences and are governed by the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act 32 of 2007.

The aim of the investigation was also to identify alternative policy and legislative responses that might regulate, prevent, deter or reduce prostitution.

According to Madlala-Routledge studies have shown that one of the key drivers of prostitution and sex trafficking is demand.

“While we welcome the continued criminalisation of those buying and profiteering from exploitation through pimping, procuring, promoting and the running of brothels, the continued criminalisation of those bought and sold, the majority of whom are women and girls, re-victimises them and hinders their exit as they also then carry the stigma of being criminals. The recommendation will also not address the structural injustice, such as the persisting gender inequality, unemployment and poverty, which Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa has characterised as having the ‘long face of an African woman’. These factors drive prostitution and commercial sexual exploitation.”

For the last six years, Embrace Dignity has advocated for and garnered support for partial decriminalisation, or what is known across the world as the equality model or Nordic model. This legislative approach, which the organisation has dubbed the Equality Law, has shown the most success in recent years and is supported by “sex trade” survivors and women’s rights groups around the world, says Madlala-Routledge. Spearheaded by Sweden in 1999 and followed by Norway, Iceland, Canada, Northern Ireland, France and the Republic of Ireland, the model allows for the decriminalisation of those prostituted and trafficked for sex and provides exiting services and support for those same persons, while criminalising pimping, the operation and ownership of brothels and the buying of sex. It is supported by both the European Union and the Council of Europe and has been gaining significant traction around the globe.

Embrace Dignity has also worked closely with those being prostituted and trafficked for sex in South Africa to better understand and respond to the realities that they face on the ground.

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