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

Remember the African National Congress (ANC) national policy conference where delegates were reported to have rejected a call to decriminalise prostitution?

Lindiwe Sisulu, minister of Human Settlements and also the chairperson of the social transformation committee of the ANC, explained that the Gauteng ANC, which represents the province around Johannesburg and Pretoria, had raised a motion calling for the decriminalisation of people selling sex, and the criminalising of those who buy it.

Sisulu revealed that the motion was tabled in plenary without notice and therefore was not 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 the South African minister of Justice, Tshililo Michael 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 mobilise society to contribute in finding a lasting solution – a solution within the ambit of the constitution. For this reason, meaningful public consultation on 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 criminalised for both buying and selling. This option includes diverting women from the justice system to access services.

A second option is for partial criminalisation in terms of which the buying of sex would be a criminal offence, but those who sell sex would be decriminalised.

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 whose services 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-victimise 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. Many have also experienced other forms of sexual or physical abuse, leaving them vulnerable.

International human rights organisation Equality Now is working with South African NGO Embrace Dignity to advocate a move away from the current system of full criminalisation, and for the introduction of the equality model (otherwise known as the Nordic model), which involves the decriminalisation of selling sex and the provision of support services including exit support for 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.

[Tsitsi Matekaire is the Equality Now manager for the End Sex Trafficking Programme]

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