Chandre Gould, senior researcher, Crime Justice and Programme of the ISS, Pretoria and Marlise Richter, visiting researcher at the Forced Migration Studies Programme of the University of the Witwatersrand
Several anti-trafficking campaigns have been initiated in South Africa ahead of the 2010 Fifa World Cup. These campaigns intend to prevent individuals from being trafficked by raising awareness about this exploitative practice and providing information about the danger it presents. Anti-trafficking initiatives are important, but it is equally important that the information presented in these campaigns is accurate and based on evidence, rather than merely aiming to instill fear and outrage.
According to the United Nations definition of trafficking, three conditions have to be met before a case of trafficking can be established:1
1. The person must be moved or transferred, harboured or received;
2. There must have been some form of coercion or deception involved; and
3. The actions should be for the purposes of exploitation.
If all three conditions are not met, the case is not one of trafficking.
The “Stop 2010 Human Trafficking" campaign recently released a web-based video clip2 aimed at raising awareness about trafficking in the run-up to the 2010 Soccer World Cup. In the clip, popular South African soap opera stars and musicians make exaggerated and inaccurate claims about trafficking and sex work in South Africa.
Amongst other things, the video states the following as fact:
Experiences in Germany during the 2006 World Cup are informative to assess the risk of trafficking during this event in South Africa. Before the 2006 World Cup in Germany, media reports convinced the public that 40 000 women and children would be trafficked into Germany to meet the demand of an estimated 3 million soccer spectators. However researchers only find evidence of five cases of trafficking.3 While the research may not have identified all incidents that occurred during the 2006 World Cup, it highlights the substantial gulf that exists between reality and the fears that exist in relation to human trafficking.
Fifa estimates that 450 000 international spectators will visit South Africa - that is six times fewer visitors than to the 2006 Germany World Cup. It is therefore highly unlikely that 100 000 people would be trafficked into South Africa. Indeed, were that to be the case there would be just less than one trafficked victim for every four spectators.
There is no evidence nationally or internationally to support the claim that legalising sex work makes trafficking worse. Proponents of legalisation and decriminalisation models of sex work in fact hold that by decriminalising sex work an otherwise murky industry will be opened to scrutiny. This, it is argued would assist police in locating traffic victims and prostituted children. A 5-year review of the effects decriminalising sex work in New Zealand found that cooperation between sex workers, police and other agencies provided useful information about criminal activity.4 There is also no evidence to support the claim that Germany and Australia regret the decision to legalise sex work.
The systematic research conducted by the ISS/SWEAT resulted in a recommendation to decriminalise sex work in South Africa. This was motivated by the fact that for as long as sex work is criminalised it is very difficult for sex workers to report incidents of abuse, of trafficking or of child prostitution to the police as well as to access social, health and legal services. Sex workers, particularly those who work on the street, are the most likely witnesses of cases of child prostitution and other types of crime. They are more likely to report such cases if they didn’t fear the police and ran the real risk of being harmed or arrested in the process.
The ISS/SWEAT study found that 47% of street-based sex workers had been threatened with violence by the police, 63% had been sworn at by a police officer, 12% had been raped by a police officer and nearly a third had been asked for sex in exchange for being released from custody. While brothel-based sex workers did not experience this level of abuse at the hands of the police, 70% said that they did not trust the police or did not know if they could trust the police. For as long as sex workers mistrust and are fearful of the police it is unlikely that they will report cases of trafficking or other crime to the police.
The research found that most sex workers in Cape Town had chosen to take up sex work for financial reasons. The study showed that sex workers were able to earn more than they would, doing other jobs commensurate with their skills. While clearly there are severe constraints on the choices that women can make in relation to the work they do, labelling all women who choose to sell sex as “victims” or “sex slaves” is to ignore their rational choices. Victims of trafficking on the other hand have been forced or duped into a situation of exploitation. In this way they differ from sex workers who have chosen to engage in sex work (albeit a choice made from limited options).
Conflating sex work and trafficking is detrimental to sex workers as it implies that they are sexual slaves without agency or choice. At the same time overestimating and sensationalising trafficking numbers diverts important resources away from services that could benefit more people.5
A number of countries have moved away from total criminalisation of sex work. However only one - New Zealand - has explicitly decriminalised sex work, choosing instead to adopt a human rights and public health framework.
The New Zealand Prostitution Reform Act was passed in 2003, after a campaign driven by sex workers, the public health community, women’s groups and human rights organisations. It was promoted on various grounds – gender justice, pragmatic law, and the preference of the people most damaged by criminalisation – the sex workers themselves. The effects of the legislative change were measured five years later. Contrary to public fears, no increase was found in the number of people entering sex work during this period.6 Sex workers reported improved working conditions and wellbeing, feeling safer under the new legal framework, and being able to negotiate safer sex and report abuse to police.7
Human trafficking is a heineous crime. However, our policies and actions must be guided by sound research and empirical evidence if this problem is to be effectively and efficiently addressed.
1. United Nations. Protocol to prevent, suppress and punish Trafficking in persons, especially Women and Children - supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational organized crime; 2000.
2. See http://www.2010humantraffic.org/STOP.htm?utm_source=STOP+2010+Human+Traffic&utm_campaign=4496e51b3f-2010_Human_Traffic2_9_2010&utm_medium=email
3. The German Delegation to Multidisciplinary Group on Organised Crime / Article 36 Committee. Experience Report on Human Trafficking for the Purpose of Sexual Exploitation and Forced Prostitution in Connection with the 2006 Football World Cup in Germany. Council of the European Union, Brussels, 5006/1/07; REV 1; CRIMORG 1; MIGR 1; 19 January 2007.4. Prostitution Law Reform Committee. Report of the Prostitution Law Reform Committee on the operation of the Prostitution Reform Act of 2003, Wellington; 2008 May 2008.
5. Cusick L, Kinnell H, Brooks-Gordon B, Campbell R. Wild guesses and conflated meanings? Estimating the size of the sex worker population in Britain. Critical Social Policy. 2009;29(4):703-19.
6. Abel, G., Fitzgerald, L. & Brunton, C. (2009) The Impact of Decriminalisation on the Number of Sex Workers in New Zealand. Journal of Social Policy, 38, pp. 515-531.
7. Prostitution Law Reform Committee. Report of the Prostitution Law Reform Committee on the operation of the Prostitution Reform Act of 2003, Wellington; 2008 May 2008.