Is South Africa’s ruling ANC party moving closer to decrimalizing women who sell sex?

The prostitution debate in South Africa has found itself in the limelight yet again...

... this time at the African National Congress (ANC) national policy conference last week when delegates are reported to have rejected a call to decriminalize prostitution.

Lindiwe Sisulu, who is the Minister of Human Settlements and also the Chairperson of the Social Transformation Committee of the ANC, explained that the Gauteng ANC, which represents the Gauteng Province around Johannesburg, had raised a motion calling for the decriminalization of women selling sex, and criminalizing of those who buy it. Sisulu revealed that the motion was tabled in plenary without notice and therefore would not be considered at the conference.

The issues raised by the Gauteng ANC are not new in South Africa and have been the subject of ongoing debate that has led to the release of the South African Law Reform Report on Adult Prostitution in May this year.

When South African Minister of Justice, Tshililo Michae Masutha, released the report he invited South Africans to engage in what he described as a contentious issue that needs our attention.

Masutha said, “Many people have different opinions on the issue. Therefore, it is important that we take the initiative to consider public opinion on the legal framework around prostitution and that we mobilize society to contribute in finding a lasting solution – a solution within the ambit of the Constitution. For this reason, meaningful public consultation of the topic of adult prostitution is imperative.”

The report puts forward two legal options. One is the continuation of the current system in South Africa, with adult prostitution remaining totally criminalized for both buying and selling. This option also includes diverting women from the justice system to access services.

A second option is for partial criminalization by which the buying of sex would be a criminal offence, but those who sell sex would be decriminalized.

Although presently in South Africa both buyers and sellers can be prosecuted, in reality it is the latter group - which is made up predominantly of women - who are actually being arrested and charged.

Women who are sold or bought should not be treated as criminals and the current situation does nothing to help safeguard those who are trapped in prostitution and sex trafficking. Arresting women only serves to re-victimizes them, when what they really need is help.

Most enter prostitution because of the dire circumstances they find themselves in. The majority are from impoverished backgrounds, lack education and do not have alternative economic opportunities and resources to help them survive. Many have also experienced other forms of sexual or physical abuse, leaving them particularly vulnerable.

International human rights organization Equality Now is working with South African NGO Embrace Dignity to advocate a move away from the current system of full criminalization, and for the introduction of the Equality Model (otherwise known as the Nordic Model), which involves the decriminalization of selling sex and the provision of support services including exit support to those who wish to leave prostitution.

Together we are also campaigning for quality support services to be made available, with more being done to prevent women and girls becoming involved in prostitution, and for better exit services.

We have met with a number of South African MPs and although we are disappointed by the ANC’s recent rejection of decriminalizing women in prostitution, we are buoyed by the fact that Gauteng ANC introduced a motion in support of this as it is an acknowledgement that prostitution is both a cause and consequence of gender inequalities and disadvantages that women and girls living in poverty face.

Gauteng ANC’s proposal was rejected not on its merits but on a technicality. It had not been properly tabled before the conference.

Sisulu said at the ANC conference, “Gauteng feels that we are unduly harsh on people who are trying to make a living and that it is the men who should be criminalized for what they do. Because from Gauteng’s perspective this is an executive pleasure resort.”

This legal framework challenges the idea that it’s acceptable to buy women’s and girls’ bodies as long as a buyer can pay for it. The Equality Model being championed by many women’s rights organizations tries to redress these inequalities by promoting women’s and girls’ right to safety, health and non-discrimination, and by challenging men’s perceived – but nonexistent – “right” to buy women’s bodies for sex.

It focuses on the demand, thereby curtailing the extent of both prostitution and trafficking. The buying and selling of sex is intrinsically linked to sex trafficking. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2016, 71% of trafficking victims are women and girls (51% and 20% respectively), 79% of whom are trafficked for sexual exploitation.

Equality Now and Embrace Dignity hope that political leaders in the ANC, will take the opportunity to engage on this issue and carefully consider the Nordic Model as an effective approach to address prostitution and the rights of women and girls in South Africa.

About Equality Now:

Equality Now is an international human rights organization that works to protect and promote the rights of women and girls around the world by combining grassroots activism with international, regional and national legal advocacy. Our international network of lawyers, activists, and supporters achieve legal and systemic change by holding governments responsible for enacting and enforcing laws and policies that end legal inequality, sexual trafficking, sexual violence, and harmful practices such as child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM). For details of our current campaigns, please visit and find us on Facebook @equalitynoworg and Twitter @equalitynow.

About the author:

Tsitsi Matekaire is the manager for Equality Now's End Sexual Trafficking program and has over 16 years experience of advocating for women’s rights in Zimbabwe and the UK. At Equality Now, Tsitsi leads our program to end sexual trafficking, which targets the demand for paid sex as the root cause. Prior to joining Equality Now, Tsitsi was Program Manager at Womankind Worldwide providing program and advocacy support to women’s rights organizations in Ethiopia, Uganda and Zimbabwe on ending violence against women, and promoting women’s civil and political participation. She has also worked with women’s rights organizations in Zimbabwe as the Director of Women in Politics Support Unit and Legal Officer at Women’s Action Group.

Comments (1)
No. 1-1

"Women who are sold or bought should not be treated as criminals" I hope that clear heads and hearts prevail and that the Nordic model is adopted!