People are building shacks in townships behind taverns so that men can have sex with girls there ... Our woman and girls are still fighting a battle of sexual harassment. Now we’re bringing another form of violence on top of prostitution ... Please bring the proper conversation to the floor.
These were the sobering words from human trafficking survivor and activist Grizelda Grootboom, who says she can’t celebrate Women’s Month while women are being raped and killed every day.
Grootboom was talking during a panel discussion on the topic of human trafficking at the residence of the Swedish ambassador in Pretoria on Wednesday.
Human trafficking has taken the form of modern day slavery and is an organised global crime industry that profits from the sale of human beings.
A 2009 report that was compiled by the UN on human trafficking identified sexual exploitation as the most commonly identified kinds of trafficking at 79%, followed by forced labour at 18%.
South Africa, the report says, is a trafficking destination for victims from countries within and outside the region.
The Salvation Army in South Africa says that of the estimated 2 million people who are trafficked every year, Africa accounts for more than 450 000 victims, yet concrete figures are still hard to come by.
Grootboom has written an insightful and heart-breaking novel called Exit!, which portrays her harrowing experience of being gang-raped and living on the streets of Cape Town.
She left Cape Town at the age of 17 with the promise of a job in Johannesburg by a friend of hers and led her to being sold into the world of sex trafficking.
“For me it was my friend, a woman, who sold me. If I had a choice I wouldn’t have gone to Joburg but I trusted her,” Grootboom said.
“The only time we have an awareness on human trafficking is when organisations come together and we have this discussion. People think that girls are being trafficked outside South Africa; no they are being trafficked right here,” she said emphatically.
Grootboom said that human trafficking has escalated so rapidly in South Africa to the point that shacks are being built behind taverns in townships in order to house young girls who are passed around for sex by men.
“We keep on saying transactional sex is my right and that sex workers choose to be there, but the perpertrators can take you in a car and the next thing you’re gone.
“We need to act fast. Trafficking is happening within South Africa. The dangers are many such as rape, harassment, kidnapping, being held against your will. We need the laws to be implemented,” she said.
A case manager for the National Freedom Network, Marcel van der Watt, who has dealt extensively with the scourge of human trafficking in South Africa and has written a doctoral study on the topic, said that there was “an absolute false dichotomy” when it came to how people were addressing the topic of human trafficking and what was actually happening.
“In 2012 I started spending time in the streets – I slept on the streets and I worked with the guys sometimes who explained how the business works.”
Van der Watt, who worked as a policeman in 2002 and was on the frontlines of raiding brothels, said that when the raids took place the women always disclosed to him that they were there not there out of choice.
“We had hundreds of women who never went through the criminal justice system because they were scared.”
He said that, contrary to the belief that victims who are trafficked are held against their will in decrepit rooms, it can happen in broad daylight in affluent neighbourhoods.
Referring to a case he worked on in an affluent neighbourhood in Soutpansberg, Pretoria, van der Watt said in that neighbourhood alone there were brothels which operated out of 38 houses.
Looking to Sweden
In 1999, in a first for Sweden and the world, a bill was passed that made it legal to sell sex, but illegal to purchase sex.
“The Sex Purchase Act was very controversial legislation because we were the first country in the world that chose to criminalise the buying but not the selling of sex. It was opposed by several political parties and the Swedish police force opposed the law. Today the police supports the law because we see so many good results,” said Simon Häggström, a police detective specialising in prostitution and human trafficking at the department of national operations in Sweden.
The Act did not happen overnight though. It was the result of a 30-year debate which began in the 1970s.
“A lot of research went into it, interviews were done with men buying sex as well as the victims. The attempt to buy sex is also illegal. Men get arrested for trying to buy sex and to help someone else to buy sex is also illegal,” he explained.
As a result of the Act, there has been a significant change in the mindset of the people of Sweden when it comes to the agency over a woman’s body and how men view sex workers.
“The results show us that, from 1996, 67% of the Swedish population were against the law. The law was introduced in 1999 and today about 70% of the population are in strong support of the law. Suddenly we’re in a situation where the women dare to talk to us. They know we don’t want to do anything bad to them. They know they can just call the police without any risk of being punished,” Häggström explained.
Häggström said that in Sweden, much like the rest of Europe, the prostitution marketplace exists predominantly online through the use of websites, with images of women who are posed in raunchy underwear and are described as “independent escorts”.
“The problem is that people see women who are smiling, and they think that the women want to do it. For most of us, we have the concept of human trafficking of how we think a victim of human trafficking should look like. Like this, a woman who is locked up and beaten up, and people say we must save the women and get the perpetrators. We must never forget that human trafficking will always pose as voluntary sex work,” he said.
“When you see these ads you have to ask the question: who are these women and where do they come from? Two weeks ago I sat down with a woman from Romania. This woman had an ad online, and I asked her where she comes from. She said sector five in Bucharest. It is one of the most dangerous areas in all of Romania. I was there almost two years ago, I met children in the streets who were 15 or 16 years who offered me oral sex for R30 and vaginal sex without a condom for R100. This is what hides behind all these sexy photos,” he said, explaining that women who end up in prostitution are never there out of choice but out of desperation.
“If you don’t have the money to put food on you children’s table, then you are willing to do anything. You cannot trust these photos. We’ve realised that you cannot even trust the women because they are too afraid to admit that they are being trafficked because they are scared of the traffickers. They have been threatened.”
Does the solution lie with men?
Häggström drew attention to the fact that men are more often than not the perpetrators when it came to the trafficking of women and children.
“Whether you’re a man or woman buying sex its illegal. We haven’t arrested a single woman yet for the buying of sex, but we can definitely say that men are in the majority of the buying of sex. I see this as a male problem. If we are going to find a solution, we have to address the demand by the men,” he said.
Emphasising the point about gender equality, Häggström was at pains to explain that prostitution is harmful to society.
“Prostitution and trafficking in women are seen as violations of the human rights and the human dignity of those women and children who are bought, sold and exploited by men. Prostitution is harmful to society at large and affects how boys who grow up view women. Prostitution only objectifies women.”
The SA situation
According to Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, John Jeffery, human trafficking is a priority crime for government.
“A victim of trafficking could be a woman sitting on a street in this neighbourhood and she could be a victim of trafficking,” he said at the discussion, as he went on to explain the complexities when it comes to managing human trafficking in South Africa.
“The problem in South Africa is that we have high unemployment rates. There is a complaint that we are giving training to people in prisons and yet people elsewhere don’t have access to this training. We don’t want it to reach the point where someone will get into sex work to simply access the training and education which is offered in the prison system because they can’t afford or aren’t in the position to access it on their own in order to gain employment.
“When it comes to the Swedish model regarding the criminalisation of buying sex, the opponents will be against it and nobody seems to agree on the research that has been done. It’s something that is perpetually developing across the world. We’ve also got to look at the fact that our country is different in terms of the conditions it has,” he said.
“One thing is that definitely a person under the age of 18 will not be allowed to sell sex in South Africa. The key issue as a country is that the proponents of partial decriminalisation and full decriminalisation of sex work do not talk to one another enough. We’ve been talking for too long, we now need to resolve. But we can’t do it alone without the various actors,” he said.
From a government perspective, the National Policy Framework on the Management of Trafficking in Persons Offences came into effect in April this year, with the aim of guiding the Prevention and Combating of Trafficking in persons Act of 2013.
Jeffery said that it is a complicated piece of legislation, but that “there are structures in government and civil society to look at its implementation”.
“There are provincial task teams and national task teams to monitor the cases [of human trafficking]. There is a problem of the anecdotes relating to human trafficking and the number of cases coming to the national justice system,” he said.
As the debate around human trafficking continues in South Africa and the rest of the world, Van der Watt said: “I would much rather fight for the rights for women and children to not be in prostitution than fight for them to be in it.”