360° Analysis

Exploitation and Commerce: Sex Trafficking in South Africa


October 17, 2013 04:58 EDT

In South Africa, sex trafficking is a problem of corruption and patriarchy.

In an interview with Fair Observer's Africa Editor, Annika Schall, the Director of EngenderBernedette Muthien, talks about problems surrounding human trafficking for sexual exploitation and suggest ways to combat the practice.

Annika Schall: Where do victims of sexual trafficking in South Africa come from, and are some people more likely to become victims than others?

Bernedette Muthien: Sex trafficking affects people from South Africa, as well as victims coming from outside the country. Inside South Africa, sex trafficking often occurs from rural areas to urban ones. And also within cities, poor girls and women are often trafficked because they are more vulnerable. A rich woman would not find herself as a victim of sex trafficking as easily as someone struggling to make ends meet. Migrant and refugee women are also more exposed to danger, and we have many refugees and migrants in the country.

Moreover, sex trafficking from other African countries affects South Africa. For instance, Nigeria is one of the larger nations from where women are brought to South Africa in that particular way. And then there’s sex trafficking from other parts of the world from outside of Africa, particularly from Asia — for example, the Thai sex industry reaches many parts of the world.

Schall: What role does organized crime play in sex trafficking?

Muthien: Criminals are entrepreneurs. They are very clever and act in a market-driven way. So, the problem with things like sex trafficking or the drug trade is that as long as there is a market for the product, the industry will remain. Usually, these criminals diversify. They do a range of things, including the trafficking of women, drugs and guns.

Notably, drug and sex trafficking are very connected. The victims are often forcefully addicted to drugs, in order to make them perform the services they do in the industry. They are raped and brutalized so they have more of a victim mentality, and therefore, become like slaves who will be more easily manageable. 

Under Apartheid in South Africa, our borders were efficiently sealed as the Apartheid government was very interested in keeping the country closed and isolated — especially from what they called “terrorist’ threats.”

But in the early 1990s, we had a huge influx of international criminal gangs from the Balkans, Russia and other places like Nigeria. These gangs set up their businesses here in South Africa with great success, often in collaboration with senior police officers. For example, we had a brothel located right opposite the entrance to the parliament. This brothel couldn’t be closed for many years, despite the fact that it was illegal and had many illegal women working there. (“Illegal” meaning they didn’t have proper documents and came from Eastern Europe and Asia.) When it was eventually shut down, people found out who it was actually serving: the higher echelons of society, business, and government.

Schall: So do you think tighter border control would help?

Muthien: No, tighter border controls don’t necessarily work. What we need are more efficient solutions; we need a less corrupt government. We even had senior police and other government officials dismissed from service, who were associated with international organized crime. But with regard to sex trafficking, we really need to work on the issues that make women vulnerable to it and in turn, offer women alternatives and work with developing women and developing communities.

The other part of it is, we need to work on the demand side of it: we need to work with men. With men who treat women as a commodity that they can just purchase to satisfy whatever need they may have. There are much deeper issues we need to address other than just tightening our borders. We need to work on both the desperation of women that force them into these untenable choices, as well as the demand side from men.

Schall: Just recently, the Prevention and Combating of Trafficking in Persons Bill was signed into law. It specifically seeks to tackle the issue of human trafficking. Do you think this is an improvement, and how has the judicial system been dealing with the issue so far?

Muthien: Laws are always helpful, because without them you have nothing. But for them to actually provide some kind of protection and to not only exist on paper, society and the system need to comply with the law. That means to educate everybody and to ensure they have good enough officers in the criminal and justice system.

We do have very good legislation in general, but our criminal justice system is not very efficient when it comes to implementing a lot of these laws. Various police officers themselves have been found guilty of criminal acts, including the rape of women or even murder. And often they are not prosecuted and dismissed, and continue to serve.

Indeed, there is not much confidence in the legal system. However, some good work has already been done in the past. For example, some traffickers have been prosecuted, including members of the police that were involved in organized crime as well as some criminal leaders.

But there is still much that needs to be done. Organized criminals are still involved in drugs, sex trafficking, and all kinds of criminal activities. They are also involved in the nightclub scene. If you want to open a legal nightclub, then you have great trouble as you have to pay bribes for protection. 

Schall: For women trying to escape their traffickers, what are the challenges they face and what is the infrastructure for victims like?

Muthien: We have many shelters in South Africa. Even some of the poorest communities have shelters. Around the corner from where I live, in a bohemian neighborhood, there is a shelter. We also have social services provided to women and we have social workers. So there are services, but sometimes it’s difficult to gain access to them or even to know they are available and where to find them. Sometimes they charge a fee.

But even if people manage to access these services, there are further questions. If women are going to live in a shelter, how long can they stay there? Usually women can only stay for a limited time, a few weeks. There are employment problems too. What to do if you have no education? How can those women find a job to support themselves? It’s really most challenging, practically. Then there are legal issues about drug addiction. Or if they came from another country and find themselves in South Africa without proper documents, then that person will have even greater difficulties. It’s really not an easy situation; with or without laws.

Schall: How is sex work – forced or not – perceived in South Africa in general?

Muthien: We are having two discourses in South Africa that have been around for several years. One discourse sees sex workers as free to choose — where it is said that for them, it is just a job and they prefer to make the same money in a ten-minute session that they would get for several hours in a factory. The other discourse looks at sex work as a crime and wants to eradicate it.

I don’t prefer one discourse over the other. I respect sex workers as they say they are in charge of their own bodies and their own lives, and that it is their choice. But sex work is often still exploitative.

However, given these two opposing discussions — which are not specific to South Africa but exist the world over — it is very difficult for people to have a coherent voice in public and to produce material to educate and inform in concise manner.

There are some initiatives by sex workers to allow other sex workers to choose for themselves — like the organization SWEAT, who work to prosecute policemen who abuse sex workers. And there’s another organization called Embrace Dignity, which tries to offer different programs for women with regards to the so-called rehabilitation of prostitutes.

Ultimately, for me, I do not have the arrogance to argue with someone who says they define themselves — they have choice and agency, with albeit limited alternatives. If a sex worker tells me that is what she is, I cannot deny her the right to define herself; I cannot insist on calling her a prostitute and try to “rescue” her. On the other hand, if a woman asks for help, if she calls herself a prostitute, a victim, and if she says she is trafficked, of course one should immediately support her.

So for me, there is no schism between the sex worker movements and that of the people supporting prostitute “rehabilitation,” and who provide necessary support for trafficking against women and children. All efforts should help combat the demand from men, which is patriarchally-driven; and the exploitation of women, whether they choose their forms of exploitation or not. All efforts should work towards the eradication of patriarchy, which is the source of all this ghastly systemic abuse of women and children. Patriarchy is the source of all violence.

Schall: So do you think legalizing prostitution would make a difference and may even help tackle sex trafficking?

Muthien: More than a decade ago, my colleagues and I conducted international surveys to understand how other parts of the world deal with the matter. Some are criminalizing: either prosecuting the sex worker or the buyer of sex. Others are decriminalizing. So there are various options.

I would prefer to make sex workers decide amongst themselves what would be the most viable options for them. But I really like the way Iceland handles it. The president and former head of state is a woman and a lesbian in a long-term relationship. Pornography is banned there, as well as lap dancing. I don’t like banning anything because I come from Apartheid where they banned everybody and everything; but I like the idea of having such a firm position on the matter. Even some of my friends who are feminists go to these lap dancing places. It is that pervasive, viewing women’s bodies as mere objects and disembodied sites of the viewers’ desires — stripping these performing bodies of agency and their own satisfaction, it mimics a voyeuristic form of rape, I might suggest.

For myself, the solution is about addressing the underlying issues. The roots are in the system itself: in patriarchy and capitalism which exploits people in general and women in particular. We need to tackle it as a multidimensional and deep-rooted problem. Why do women feel that their bodies are not valuable and that they can just throw them away? Why do some people exploit, abuse and dominate other people?

If we work on these deeper issues, then I would argue that we would not have the problem in the first place. There would only be respect and care for self and others, and desire that is mutual and free of exploitation and commerce.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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