It's the Oldest Form of Oppression

Angelique Ardé, Business Day August 22, 2011 South Africa

Madlala-Routledge says the only thing more disturbing than the oppression of women is women who buy into their own oppression. Picture by Trevor Samson for Business Day

TRADITIONALLY, two camps have dominated the prostitution debate: the pro-legalization lobby and the "moral right." A shallow understanding of prostitution is entrenching the oppression and inequality of women in SA. This is according to Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, the founder and director of Embrace Dignity, a nonprofit organisation that the activist and former member of Parliament set up in June, and which advocates law reform that recognizes the harm of prostitution, provides exit strategies for people in prostitution, and addresses the demand for it .

Madlala-Routledge served as the deputy minister of defense and later the deputy minister of health. After a highly publicized falling out with health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang she was dismissed from the cabinet by then-president Thabo Mbeki on the eve of Women's Day in 2007. She was later elected deputy speaker of Parliament. In 2009, she left Parliament and went on to complete an honor s degree in philosophy at the University of Cape Town.

"Prostitution is the cornerstone of the institution of the system of inequality between the sexes," she says. "A profession requires a formal qualification and is something to which a person aspires. It leads to a career and personal growth. Prostitution does no such thing. It is inherently harmful; in fact, it's deadly. Girls and women in prostitution have a mortality rate 40 times higher than the rest of us. One study found that women in prostitution suffer from levels of post-traumatic stress disorder higher than the levels suffered by soldiers in war. Prostitution is also deeply degrading and strips people of their dignity, which is why we stand against any attempts to portray it as "work" or as harmless."

She says "a change of thinking" prompted her to set up Embrace Dignity, which derives its name from one of the founding provisions of the constitution: the right to human dignity.

"I was part of the struggle for freedom and continue to be an activist for human rights for all. I fought against racism, gender and class oppression for all women to be free. I fought for women to be able to make real choices and was therefore never comfortable with the prostitution of women.

"When I saw women standing in the streets waiting to be bought, I would think, "Is that a life I would wish for myself or my sisters?" I started to think about what made women make that "choice".

"I started to read literature by women?s rights activists like Sheila Jeffreys and Catharine MacKinnon, as well as writers from South America and Asia, and it began to change my thinking. I began to understand that prostitution is the absence of choice and that it is inherently harmful and must never be regarded as work."

Prostitution as sexual exploitation is gaining traction as a policy stance. It began in 1999 when Sweden introduced legislation in line with its gender equality programme that regards prostitution as violence against women, and as such decriminalized the selling of sex but criminalized its purchase . Norway and Iceland adopted similar legislation and in recent years, the UK has also been considering the Swedish model.

Prostitution is illegal in SA and, since 2007, so too is the buying of sex, although men continue to "buy" women's bodies at sex clubs, massage parlors and on the streets with impunity and the prosecution of buyers is rare.

Despite the law prohibiting the buying and selling of sex, prostitution is on the increase here and the law is under review after the publication of a discussion paper by the South African Law Reform Commission in 2009.

Until the launch of Embrace Dignity, Madlala-Routledge says the pro-prostitution lobby has largely shaped how South Africans think about prostitution. "There is this view that prostitution is a neutral transaction between two consenting partners, which is mostly harmless, and that if you make it legal and/or regulate it, it will become safer for women and clean up the sex industry.

"That's a myth. You need look no further than the Netherlands, where human trafficking is on the rise and organized crime is heavily invested in the burgeoning sex industry. Since 2008, Amsterdam has been trying to shut down brothels and sex clubs to regain control."

However, "the moral right" take, at the other end of the spectrum, tends towards a judgmental view of prostitution, and often lacks sympathy for, and understanding of, the plight of prostituted people and the push factors.

"We're seeking to end the prostitution of women but we do not judge its victims. To improve our understanding, we have supported the formation of Masiphakameni, which means Rise Up in Xhosa. It is made up of small groups of men and women who are seeking to support each other and find ways out of prostitution."

What about those who don't want out or the view that every woman should have the right to choose what she does with her body?

"The majority of women in prostitution want out. In a study examining prostitution in nine countries, including SA , 89% of prostituted people said they wanted to leave it, but had no other options for survival."

Madlala-Routledge says the only thing more disturbing than the oppression of women is women who buy into their own oppression.

"I would say this is the biggest challenge we face. Whether it is the woman with power, economic power, championing the rights of poor women to sell themselves; or whether it is a poor woman demanding the right to prostitute herself because she has been denied choices in life, both are buying into oppression."

Madlala-Routledge is mobilizing the support of some powerful organisations including the African National Congress' Women's League and the Congress of South African Trade Unions. Embrace Dignity is also affiliated to the international office of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, a powerful lobby group.

"We need a strong and united women's movement to end patriarchy and gender-based violence in all its forms, including prostitution," Madlala- Routledge says. "I'm hoping that as we dialogue on these issues, we are going to be better able to understand the sex industry, which I see as a huge industry raking in millions for the few: those men who exploit and control women.

"We don't want SA to become a pimp state and we don't want to address poverty and unemployment by exploiting women through prostitution.

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