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Protect the Rights of Women and Girls: Enact the Equality Model in South Africa

Over the past 20 years, rates of sexual violence have increased in the country. Prostitution is one of the most brutal forms of sexual abuse, which is founded on and perpetuated by patriarchy (systematic unequal power relations between women and men whereby women are systematically disadvantaged and oppressed). Prostitution thrives on men’s sexual entitlement to women and other marginalized groups’ bodies. Current South African law makes the purchase and sale of sexual acts illegal. However, while some of the police are known to arrest and brutalize prostituted people for loitering, buyers are rarely arrested.

The overwhelming majority of those sold in South Africa’s sex trade are South African women and women trafficked from other countries. Reports indicate that prostituted people are beaten, raped, abandoned and isolated. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is common. One study found that 75% of a group of prostituted individuals in South Africa reported experiencing symptoms of PTSD.

The South African Constitution states that the country is based on “human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms.” It also establishes that “equality includes the full and equal enjoyment of all rights and freedoms.” The sex trade is fundamentally antithetical to these principles. South Africa must not normalize or endorse the sex trade that destroys the lives and human rights of its most vulnerable populations who have absence of choice.
The negative consequences of poverty, which affects around half of the South African population, are significantly compounded by the low social status of women, girls and other people rendered powerless by patriarchy.

In light of the need to address the harms of the sex trade, the South African Law Reform Commission published a Discussion Paper on Adult Prostitution and issued a call for public participation in the evaluation of the country’s law on “adult prostitution.” The Commission evaluated four major legal frameworks and submitted the final report and recommendations to the Minister of Justice who will publish the report after its consideration by the Cabinet.

The four legal models are:

  1. Total criminalization of what the Commission calls “adult prostitution”;
  2. Total decriminalization of prostitution, including pimping and sex-buying;
  3. Legalization and regulation of prostitution, including pimping and sex-buying; and
  4. Decriminalization solely of prostituted individuals and supporting them to exit the sex trade, while penalizing sex buyers who fuel the multi-billion-dollar sex trade and those profiting from the exploitation (what we refer to as the Equality Law).

The first option unacceptably punishes individuals, mostly women, sold in the sex trade for their own exploitation. All options, except the fourth one, ignore the exploitation, control, violence and abuse that are the bedrock of the sex trade. Furthermore, the second and third options — full decriminalization or legalization — would also legitimize the exploitative sex trade for the profit of sex traffickers, brothel owners and pimps, and offer sex buyers a government-sanctioned right to purchase and abuse prostituted people.

In South Africa, fighting the HIV/AIDS epidemic is often used to justify the call for full decriminalization of the sex trade. While efforts to combat HIV/AIDS are paramount given the ongoing crisis, these endeavors cannot be the sole entry points into prostituted people’s lives and certainly not the justification for allowing exploiters to commit crimes with impunity. HIV/AIDS reduction programs alone cannot mitigate the life-long harms inflicted by sex buyers and exploiters upon prostituted people, nor can they continue to ignore the realities on the ground for those vulnerable to prostitution. For example, survivors and prostituted individuals state that the ability to negotiate condom use is a myth, given the power and control imposed on them by buyers and pimps.

We, the undersigned, call on the South African government to enact the fourth legal option or the Equality Model. Also known as the Swedish or Nordic Models. The Equality Model provides a framework that upholds gender equality and human rights. This model works to end demand for paid sexual acts by holding sex buyers accountable for the harm they cause. This model also mandates that the government provide prostituted individuals with comprehensive medical services, economic and educational opportunities, and alternative livelihood programs. In addition, it will serve as a tool to change the pervasive cultural paradigm that views women and other marginalized bodies as second-class citizens. This option would also provide an effective and comprehensive framework for combating the spread of HIV/AIDS through targeting and eliminating the demand.

By enacting the Equality Model, the South African government will affirm that women, girls and marginalized people are full human beings and not commodities to be bought, sold, abused and violated at the will of exploiters and sex buyers. We urge the South African government to affirm that women and girls are full human beings and not commodities to be bought, sold, abused and violated at the will of exploiters and sex buyers. South Africa must NOT legalize or decriminalize the sex trade that destroys the lives and human rights of its most vulnerable populations who have absence of choice. We urge South Africa to become the first African country to adopt a law that will solely decriminalize prostituted people and curb the demand for prostitution.

Please join Embrace Dignity, supported by the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, by signing this petition urgently calling on President Zuma and the South African government to enact the Equality Model legislation that will target the exploiters, including sex buyers, while providing protection and support to prostituted individuals.

This petition has closed.

View on Change.org


Thumbnail photo credit: UN Photo/Marco Dormino



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