Don’t let sex slavery turn South Africa into a pimp state

Let’s welcome the world but keep out human traffickers, says Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge in this edited version of an open letter to President Jacob Zuma

As we prepare to host the world’s biggest sporting event , large numbers of visitors have begun to arrive in South Africa.

You have appealed to South Africans to welcome our visitors and to make this World Cup the best ever. We agree.

However, large sporting events are known to increase levels of sex trafficking. From research conducted with our partners, we believe this World Cup will be no different.

The United Nations estimates that some 80% of persons trafficked are trafficked for sexual exploitation and that the majority are women and children. South Africa is a prime destination for trafficking. One trafficked woman or child is one too many.

Our constitution promotes human rights, human dignity, gender equality, women’s rights and children’s rights.

Women joined the liberation movement so that we too could enjoy the fruits of freedom. We sacrificed, were imprisoned, exiled and some killed.

We kept the home fires burning. We built South Africa with our sweat and blood. We scrubbed floors, ironed, cooked and nursed small children – some not our own.

Yet social, economic, racial and gender inequality persists in our country, making us vulnerable to sex trafficking and sexual exploitation.

I wish to appeal to you as president to do your best to ensure that women and children will be safe during this period and beyond. You have the power to command the police to implement the laws we have passed to safeguard women and children.

South Africa is party to the UN conventions on the rights of women and children.

We have signed the Convention Against All forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Palermo Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, which supplements the Convention against Transnational Organised Crime.

We have adopted the National Strategy to Combat Human Trafficking. We have passed the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Amendment Act 32 of 2007, which criminalises buyers of women for sexual exploitation. Yet large numbers of women abusers, pimps, brothel and strip-club owners go unpunished.

They are powerful men with money. They buy women’s bodies and bribe police.

Some government officials and researchers have said that the police must be left to fight real crime during the World Cup. Are crimes against women and children not real? Would you condone the breaking of some of our laws because the police are over-stretched?

Some have said the World Cup brings economic opportunities for women. At what cost, Mr President? Are women’s lives so cheap that they can be bought and sold?

The world should hang its head in shame that it has allowed women’s bodies to be commercialised and objectified.

Some have argued that there is a distinction between human trafficking and prostitution. If there were no prostitution, there would be no sex trafficking. This separation is made on the grounds that prostitution is ordinary work and that trafficking is only a problem if women are forced into this work. Ordinary?

The international trade in women for prostitution has greatly increased. It is a hidden trade, so estimates vary, but research puts the number of women being transported for prostitution around the world yearly at between 700000 and two million.

Wherever women and girls are impoverished or displaced they are at risk of traffickers.

Some human rights organisations and UN agencies have imbibed the language of choice and agency. Mr President, how much choice and agency does a woman or girl have who has no food to put on the table, or has been socialised to think that her body is for a man’s pleasure?

There are a number of common patterns for luring victims into situations of sex trafficking, including:
A promise of a good job in another country;
A false marriage proposal turned into a bondage situation;
Being sold into the sex trade by parents, husbands, boyfriends; and
Being kidnapped by traffickers.

Sex traffickers frequently subject their victims to debt-bondage – they tell them that they owe money, often relating to the victims’ living expenses and transport into the country – and that they must pledge their services to repay the debt.

They use a variety of methods to “condition” their victims, including starvation, confinement, beatings, physical abuse, rape, gang rape, threats of violence to them and their families, forced drug use and the threat of shaming the women by revealing their activities to families and friends.

Victims also face numerous health risks, including drug and alcohol addiction; physical injuries, sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, sterility, miscarriages, menstrual problems and forced abortions.

Victims are at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder – acute anxiety, depression, insomnia, and self-loathing.

Trafficking in women is not new. Slavery often involved trafficking and prostitution. Prostitution is the world’s oldest form of oppression.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries Jewish women fleeing pogroms in eastern Europe were transported to Buenos Aires for prostitution.

In the ’20s Russian women were trafficked into China as a result of the poverty and famine of the post-revolutionary period. Russian women are again being trafficked following the fall of communism.

The 1949 UN Convention of the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others required the outlawing of brothels and resulted in their closure in many countries in the ’50s. The convention recognised that prostitution was not just the destination of trafficked women, but the reason that trafficking occurred.

There was an understanding that prostitution was incompatible with the dignity of women and must be ended if trafficking was to be ended.

The demand for prostitution determines supply. A strong call by men not to buy sex would eliminate demand and therefore supply. Mr President, South Africa must not become a pimp state.

Madlala-Routledge is head of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women – South Africa and its Embrace Dignity Campaign


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