Mr President, Prostitution Is a Violation of Human Rights – Abolish It

Open Letter To President Cyril Ramaphosa By Mickey Meji - A survivor of the sex trade

Dear Mr President

I’m a South African woman with first hand experience of the harms of what the sex trade entails. I write to you as a survivor who is in the process of picking up the pieces of my life ruined by prostitution and as part of regaining my full worth as an individual. I write to you today as part of the many who are commemorating the brave women, who 64 years ago, marched to the Union Buildings in protest to the extension of pass laws to African women. 

They handed a petition to the then Prime MInister, J. G. Strydom as they chanted: “You strike a woman, you strike a rock”.

It is an indictment on this democratic government that the atrocities mentioned in the petition delivered by the 20000 women those many years ago, said to have been caused by the pass laws, are similar to what I bring to your attention today with regards to the prostitution system. 

I speak on behalf of Kwanele, a movement of survivors of the sex trade and represent and speak on behalf of hundreds of thousands of women who agree that prostitution is not work but the last option of survival for many women pushed to the margins by our society. For many of us, if not all of us, this is not about choice. The exploitative sex trade and men who prey on women’s vulnerabilities caused by circumstances beyond our control chose us. I attach here my personal story which I doubt, you would not have heard before. Mine, like that of many other women, is a story of a woman who just wanted to put bread on the table for her children but didn’t have the financial means to do so. 

All over the country right now, especially poor black women from disadvantaged backgrounds are bought, sold, exploited and murdered by the men who buy them in the sex trade and the pimps who take advantage of our vulnerabilities. 

The harms of prostitution are so profoundly linked to gender, class, and racial inequality that the prostitution industry is one of the world’s most extreme systems of discrimination. Its victims are overwhelmingly female and overwhelmingly poor. They are made vulnerable by a number of factors, including the disadvantaged status of women living in certain regions in the world, by childhood sexual abuse for which girls are disproportionately targeted, and by the desperation induced by poverty. Once in prostitution their status falls even lower and their life prospects are more sharply curtailed. Among prostituted women, it is often undocumented women trafficked from poor countries who suffer the worst exposure to the most harmful and unsafe practices within prostitution. Prostitution is both cause and effect of cruel and entrenched inequalities.

I lead a group of women, predominately black, who are united in saving the African woman from the degradation of the sex trade. We represent a broad section of women from across Africa, who come from the cities and the towns, from the reserves and the villages. Kwanele, a survivor movement I founded in 2017 now has a presence in seven provinces of South Africa and a membership of almost 700. I also belong to SPACE International, a survivor led network formed in Ireland, in 2012 and with a presence in the US, UK, Canada, Australia, Denmark, Germany and South Africa. I also speak on behalf of the Survivor Empowerment and Support Programme, a service and advocacy organisation I founded and now lead as Executive Director. 

For many years, African  women have suffered under the laws that victimise them. The full criminalisation of the system of prostitution which includes the criminalisation of those who are bought and sold in this exploitative system have brought suffering to every prostituted woman. 

Raids, arrests, abuse by police, days  in the cells, sexual exploitation – this is what this law has brought to women. Punishment and misery – not for a crime, but for the systematic failures that renders them vulnerable to the exploitation of prostitution. 

We as African women know too well the effects of this law upon us, our homes, and our children. We are not and should not be equated to the same men who buy us. 

Prostitution has a devastating impact on us, physically and mentally. We are arrested daily and some of us are murdered. Of 854 people in prostitution in nine countries (Canada, Colombia, Germany, Mexico, South Africa, Thailand, Turkey, United States, and Zambia), 71% experienced physical assaults in prostitution, and 62% reported rapes in prostitution (Farley, Cotton, et al., 2003). Eighty-nine percent told the researchers that they wanted to leave prostitution but did not have other options for economic survival. To normalise prostitution as a reasonable job choice for poor women makes invisible their strong desire to escape prostitution. Vanwesenbeeck (1994). Women in prostitution are treated as if their rapes do not matter. For example, in Venezuela, El Salvador, and Paraguay, the penalty for rape is reduced by one fifth if the victim is a prostitute (Wijers & Lap-Chew, 1997). Many people assume that when a prostituted woman is raped, that rape is part of her job and that she deserved or even asked for the rape.

The mainstream narrative is that women have a choice and that if prostitution is totally decriminalised, this would help the prostituted woman. What mainstream media don’t tell you Mr President, is how for the privilege of payment, sex buyers are able to inflict broken bones, traumatic brain injuries, and anogenital lacerations on those they purchase.

The stories that are not told in mainstream media are what happens when that door closes after the man has paid for us. 

We suffer life-long, severe psychological and physical trauma. The list of harms starts with malnourishment, dental trauma, sexually transmitted diseases, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicidal ideation, substance abuse, addiction, anxiety, depression and the list is long.  

Sex trafficking and prostitution are inextricably linked; without a market for prostitution, there would be no sex trafficking.

The Constitution of this land enshrines the rights to equality, human dignity, life and freedom from exploitation. Our constitution is hailed worldwide for being one of the most progressive and yet, promises that democracy improves lives for all have come to naught in the case of the  prostituted women. 

In 1949, the United Nations General Assembly paid consideration to a particularly blatant violation of human dignity: prostitution and its exploitation by third parties. In the preamble to the United Nations Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others, of 2 December 1949, the States Parties recalled that prostitution is “incompatible with the dignity and worth of the human person”. Consequently, the UN undertook to combat pimping in all its forms and to ensure assistance was provided to prostituted persons. 

In 1979, article 6 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) reinforced this policy by explicitly requesting that States Parties “suppress all forms of traffic in women and exploitation of prostitution of women”.

International human rights law qualifies prostitution as a violation of human rights. 

Twenty-six years after the advent of our democracy, this government has made no attempt to abolish the system of prostitution and align itself with the policy statements above. 

How can we hold our heads high Mr President while we promote prostitution under the current wave of debate that says it must be decriminalised? What we are saying is let’s open the doors wide for the exploitation of other human beings. Really? 

The proposed National Strategic Plan on Gender Based Violence and Femicide released by the government in May 2020 is “flawed”, as Nozizwe Madlala Routledge stated in her response to the proposal. “The flaw is the implied recommendation for the decriminalisation of “sex work”, which we prefer to call the system of prostitution as it forms part of systems of oppression, including patriarchy, classism, sexism and racism”. I attach her full statement here for your perusal Mr President. Embrace Dignity proposes a coherent, rational solution to a fatal flaw in the Strategic Plan on Gender Based Violence (GBV) and Femicide (2) (1)

A founder of Embrace Diginity, Madlala-Routledge further says and we agree with her: “While we agree that the bought, sold and exploited must be decriminalised and assisted to find alternative forms of employment, we totally disagree with the call to also decriminalise the sex exploitation industry as a whole. Those exploiting the position of vulnerability caused by factors such as poverty, childhood sexual abuse or abandonment or race and gender inequality should remain criminalised. Focusing on ending the demand and supporting exit from prostitution as part of a comprehensive strategy to abolish the oppressive system is the only effective strategy for addressing the violence inherent in the prostitution system”.

Mr President, we are women who have been at the receiving end of prostitution and who have been on the fringes of our socio-economic services such as health and education and the economy. 

We implore you and your cabinet to adopt and enact the Equality Law to end this insult to all women. Prostitution of women and girls  is an insult to all women and girls.  

We don’t want condoms. We don’t want the police to back-off because men are now allowed to have sex with us for money. We want education. We want to be empowered to enter the job market like other citizens. We want to qualify for loans, to start our businesses. 

And as we have shown above – through the policy statements on prostitution by the various global and well respected organisations – these institutions agree with us. 

International human rights law qualifies prostitution as a violation of human rights. Human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of gender, nationality, place of residency, sex, ethnicity, religion, colour or and other categorisation. Thus, human rights are non-discriminatory, meaning that all human beings are entitled to them and cannot be excluded from them.

We therefore, Mr President, cannot speak of the protection of human rights and dignity for all, while we call for a system that violates the human rights and dignity of others – simply because they are the most vulnerable and weak. 

Lest we forget: apartheid was the most crude form of human rights violations and this country and the rest of the world, didn’t fold their arms and try to cushion the violation – worse, in favour of the exploiters. Much blood was lost to attain what we have today. We implore you to break the cycle of a system which exploits the prostituted woman. 

Mr President, we are human beings like any other citizen. 

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One Comment

  1. A very well argued case for the abolitionist equality law on adult prostitution, This law gives the agency and choice to those prostituted by decriminalising them. It removes the agency from the patriarchal sex buyers and their objectification of women by criminalising them. It removes the agency from the capitalist free market industry profit to from the exploitation. This law has been adopted by 9 countries since the initiative of Sweden on 1999 as part of a set of interventions to to promote gender equality and address violence against women and patriarchy.

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