Gender and Development

The Equality Law: Targeting Demand For The Sale Of Sex In South Africa

South Africa is considering passing the Equality Law, which calls for partial decriminalization of prostitution. Savannah Estridge explains the options present before the government putting forth the best course of action to protect those most vulnerable to this form of gender based violence.


It is estimated that around 150,000 women in South Africa are involved in prostitution, although some estimates put this figure much higher. The vast majority of those who are involved in prostitution are doing so out of a lack of viable options to support themselves, rather than by choice. Certain characteristics, including gender, race, ethnicity, class, socioeconomic status, lack of education and experience of abuse as children, make individuals more susceptible to exploitation through the sale of sex.

The South African government has been researching possible options for legislation covering prostitution for over two decades. In May of 2017, the Minister of Justice published the South African Law Reform Committee’s (SALRC) report on project 107 – Adult prostitution. This report has provided two options for the upcoming bill: full criminalization or partial decriminalization of prostitution. Full criminalization of prostitution criminalizes anyone involved in prostitution (those who sell sex, those who purchase it, and benefiting third parties such as pimps and brothel owners). Full criminalization would provide diversion programs for those involved in the sale of sex. These diversion programs require culprits to admit to committing a crime and go through special programs instead of spending time in jail. Partial decriminalization, also known as the Equality Law in South Africa, views prostitution as a form of gender based violence (GBV) and would only criminalize those who exploit others through prostitution: buyers and third parties such as pimps and brothel owners. It targets the demand for the sale of sex, rather than the women who are victims of GBV while selling it. This method is believed to reduce rates of sex trafficking by creating an undesirable environment into which to traffic victims. The equality model also creates resources for individuals to exit prostitution, such as health care, legal representation, skills training, finding housing, etc.

The Equality Law has been implemented in multiple countries around Europe. While this model is most well known for being successfully implemented in Nordic countries (the first to adopt the law was Sweden in 1999), it has been adopted by other countries as well, some of the most recent being France, Ireland, and Israel. If South Africa adopts the equality law, it will be the first country in Africa to do so. Currently South Africa’s laws regarding the sale of sex involve full criminalization of buyers and sellers.

Prostituted victims are frequently exposed to physical, emotional, and sexual violence, which can be extremely traumatic and lead to emotional and physical health problems as well as death. It is common for prostituted victims to experience rape by customers. The murder rate of women in prostitution is significantly higher than that of the general population.

The damaging effects to prostituted victim’s emotional health can be severe. A study published title Prostitution and Trafficking in Nine Countries: An Update on Violence and Posttraumatic Stress disorder, found that “prostitution was multitraumatic: 71% were physically assaulted in prostitution; 63% were raped; 89% of these respondents wanted to escape prostitution, but did not have other options for survival.”

Often prostituted victims had experienced a different form of GBV before they were exploited through the sale of sex. Victims of GBV during childhood are more likely to participate in risky sexual behavior, including prostitution. Gender Links, a South African women’s rights organization conducted a study over rates of GBV in four provinces of South Africa. According to Gender links’ study, “77% of women in Limpopo, 51% in Gauteng, 45% in the Western Cape and 36% in KwaZulu-Natal had experienced some form of GBV.”

The effects of the GBV experienced by prostituted victims indicates that the sale of sex is most commonly a form of GBV, one in which South African women (especially South African women of color), are at risk. Victims of exploitation should not be criminalized, but rather those who exploit them should be targeted.

Women in South Africa are particularly vulnerable to becoming victims of prostitution for multiple reasons. Women of color living in Post-Apartheid South Africa, especially black and colored women, continue to feel the after effects of the White Nationalist movement that stripped them of most of their rights for over half a century. This inequality in the country persists for many, with women in particular feeling the effects especially hard. This leads to women being vulnerable to the risk factors causing many women to resort to selling sex in order to survive.

Additionally, South Africa has an unemployment rate of 27.7 percent, with rates of unemployment varying between racial groups as well as genders.  According to Lynsey Chutel of Quartz Africa, Black South Africans face the most unemployment, 31.4%, followed by the coloreds, 22.9%. Moreover, female South Africans have the highest unemployment rate, with 52.5% of women age 20 to 24 unemployed. The unemployment rate translates to a low socio-economic status, making it particularly difficult for women in South Africa to earn money to support themselves as well as their families.

South African women experience a high rate of GBV that can lead to higher chances of risky sexual behavior, including selling sex. It is important to note that physical and sexual abuse are not the only forms of GBV many women experience. Ukutwala, or the kidnapping and forced marriage of girls and young women is practiced in South Africa. Often, when this occurs, girls are kept from finishing their education, leading them to be financially dependent on their kidnappers and more vulnerable to resorting to selling sex to survive. It is not uncommon for young girls to have a blesser, also known as a sugar daddy, in order to have financial support. This financial support is often in exchange for sexual favors, which can lead to young girls being manipulated by these men, making girls vulnerable to sex trafficking as well. This arrangement is also seen by many as a form of GBV, with some labeling it as lifestyle prostitution.

Low socio-economic status can often make it unaffordable to gain an education. Teenage pregnancy (some of which is caused by rape) can lead to girls having to drop out of school. These forms of gender inequality stem from a patriarchal society where women are unequal to men and this inequality is profoundly compounded by poverty and race. This power imbalance between genders creates a systematic bias against women, leading to these risk factors that cause women to become exploited by others through the sale of sex.

South Africa’s law regarding prostitution is currently criminalization, which has not led to reduction in the sale of sex in the country. If anything, it has led to women facing challenges while attempting to exit prostitution, thereby becoming trapped in a cycle of exploitation. Criminalization does not target the systemic oppression that leads people to become prostituted victims. If anything, it makes these people even more vulnerable to discrimination. Stigmatization of those who sell sex is common, making discrimination against this group by others particularly likely. When those who sell sex are arrested, they receive a criminal background, making it difficult to gain formal employment. Criminalization does not deal with issues of GBV, socio-economic inequality, racial inequality, etc, that lead many to sell sex to survive. Because of this, victims are even more likely to return to selling sex when they get out of jail from a continued lack of resources to care for themselves.

Criminalization of prostitution exacerbates the power imbalance between men and women in South African society. In South Africa, it is common for prostituted victims to experience abuse at the hand of police officers. Women commonly suffer physical, sexual, and emotional abuse by members of the police force. When arrested, prostituted victims are rarely tried in court. Often prostituted victims are let out of jail in exchange for sexual favors. This prevents victims from having a fair trial and being able to defend themselves, leaving them with a criminal record and no chance to fight it in court.

The Equality Law strategically targets the gender power imbalance that leads to prostitution and treats those who sell sex as victims of their circumstances, rather than criminals themselves. Exit resources created by the Equality Law target the different factors that lead people to becoming victims of prostitution. Skills training provides victims with the ability to find a job and legal representation can help remove their criminal background record. Targeting demand for sex rather than the prostituted victims will lead to an environment where women won’t have to deal with abuse from law enforcement. It will lead to an environment where those who are abused have the ability to report their abuse to the police without fear of consequences.

Some people argue that diversion programs called for in criminalization will help women escape from prostitution, but there are multiple problems with this expectation. The first problem is that even though diversion programs are included in the current legislation, South Africa has not created any.  Of course, if these women aren’t being brought to court in the first place they wouldn’t have access to these programs even if they did exist. Second, if these programs were established, it would be required that prostituted victims admit to wrongdoing in order to be accepted into the program. Because prostitution is a form of GBV, no one who is a victim of it should have to stand in court and admit to committing a crime. Those who sell sex are not criminals and should not be treated as such. The third issue is that in the current legislation, as well as the proposed bill, there are few guidelines to how these diversion programs should be operated, and who is to be held accountable for their operation.

It is important to note that there will need to be a significant cultural shift for the equality law to be fully implemented. Male police officers, male government representatives, juries, among others will have to be willing to prosecute men. Those who are in power (who are mostly men) will have to view other men’s actions as worthy of punishment, rather than take a forgiving “boys will be boys” attitude. The first step to such a shift though can be implementing the Equality Law so more people in society begin to take this form of GBV seriously.

Note from the Author: The South African government has asked for public input on which potential bill the citizens believe will minimize the issue of prostitution in South African society. In 2017, I worked with Embrace Dignity, an organization advocating for the abolition of prostitution. Embrace Dignity lobbies for the passing of the Equality Law, creates community awareness over prostitution and human trafficking in and around Cape Town, and provides support to women in the process of exiting from prostitution by connecting them with resources to keep them from having to resort to prostitution to support themselves financially. Embrace Dignity has created a survivor movement called Kwanele (“enough is enough”) that has created a survivor manifesto and helps lobby for the equality law. Kwanele has over 1000 survivors involved spread throughout five provinces in South Africa. Embrace Dignity has been active in public discourse over the proposed bill, frequently meeting with key figures in the debate such as politicians from the African National Congress, the Democratic Alliance, the South African Police forces, Union members, church leaders, among many others with a goal of creating a diverse support group of the law. During my time with Embrace Dignity, I learned about many South African women’s experiences while being exploited through prostitution. South Africa could be the first country in Africa to pass the Equality Law, thus working to protect those exploited through prostitution.

Savannah Estridge previously served as a human rights researcher and community activist at Embrace Dignity in Cape Town, South Africa. Savannah was also a community youth empowerment facilitator in the Peace Corps. She is currently pursuing her Master of Science in Global Affairs at New York University.

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

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