Embrace Dignity petition to end all all forms of oppression against women, prostitution & sex trafficking

NCOP Petitions and Executive Undertakings

02 March 2016
Chairperson: Mr S Thobejane (ANC, Limpopo)
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Meeting Summary

Embrace Dignity, a non-profit organisation, briefed the Committee on itself and its call to Parliament to assist in ending all forms of oppression against women, prostitution and sex trafficking. Embrace Dignity essentially set out to challenge gender and power inequalities that continued to oppress women and girls and to express its concern about and to try to help those who were being forced into prostitution, sexual exploitation, and sexual abuse. It aimed to address the issues by offering support and systems for those who wished to leave prostitution and move into a different and more dignified lifestyle. The vision of Embrace Dignity is in line with the Constitution.

The petition that Embrace Dignity presented to Parliament called upon Parliament to set up a multi-party committee involving members of other relevant Portfolio Committees, such as Justice, Police, Labour, Health, Social Development, Transport, Mineral Resources and Defence. This is in line with a the Department of Justice’s initiative that a SA Law Review Commission report in relation sex work and prostitution be put to the Justice, Crime Prevention and Security Cluster. This cluster will be engaging with other departments in order to produce a report for Cabinet by April.

It wanted the committee then to investigate the legal options outlined in the SA Law Reform Commission's 2009 discussion paper, by calling for further research and conducting a public hearing. Finally, it wanted this Committee to call for the release of the SALRC final report by the Minister of Justice, to enable stakeholders to deliberate on the legal frameworks.

The Commission for Gender Equality noted that it supported the call for the setting up of a joint committee to investigate prostitution and trafficking. Input was also given by the Masimeyeni Group. This committee should investigate the nature and extent of the problem, how it involved both sexes and all ages who were forced into prostitution and sex trafficking and to look into who was responsible for the perpetuation of this crime. It also would like an investigation into the extent to which the SA Police Services and Department of Justice had effectively implemented the relevant legislation to try to prosecute, and what support measures, programme and resources were being provided by the state to victims of forced prostitution and sex trafficking. The CGE called for decriminalisation of sex workers and a proper discussion on who was considered to be a sex worker. Allegations made about the attitude and abuse by the SAPS against sex workers also had to be investigated. The CGE further emphasised the tremendous and ongoing stigmatisation of sex workers, and said that notwithstanding progressive legislation, policies and international agreements promoting gender equality, the reality was that the condition of women and girls was not clear. There were good stories in South Africa but these belied the gross violation of women’s rights, poor implementation of legislation and policies, poor resourcing of services to combat sexual violence, abuse and to promote economic empowerment.  Testimony was presented by two women who had been victims of oppression and sex trafficking from a young age, and they urged Parliament to rise to the challenge of saving vulnerable girls, boys and women from the traps of sex traffickers.

Members indicated their support for the release of the report and a thorough investigation, including investigation into the roles of the SAPS and other bodies, and many supported the call to decriminalise sex workers although it was noted that this would be a very contentious issue, particularly for some religious leaders. It was noted that a united and inclusive approach would be preferable, and several Members commented that this petition needed to be debated in other committees also to get as much input as possible, notwithstanding that the Portfolio Committee on Justice had engaged on the issues already.  They asked what was being done to try to lift workers or trafficked persons out of the cycle but were anxious to avoid too much duplication. 

Meeting report

Embrace Dignity Petition: To end all forms of oppression against women, prostitution & sex trafficking
Mr Jeremy Routledge, Deputy Director and founding member of Embrace Dignity, presented the petition formally to the Committee. He said that it addressed issues bordering on violence against women in South Africa, the fact that any delay in addressing this petition would affects women, and essentially that it called upon Parliament to establish a multi-faceted approach to addressing the issues urgently, and to help in the implementation of any political decisions or policies. The vision of 'embrace dignity' is in line with the South African Constitution, which steadfastly opposes commercial and sexual exploitation of those who are rendered powerless and vulnerable by poverty and absence of choice.

Ms Grizelda Grootboom, Embrace Dignity representative, said that she was a survivor of sex trafficking herself. She had been exposed to sexual abuse from the age of nine in Khayelitsha, had been a victim of sex trafficking at age of 18 and ended up as a street child engaged in prostitution and drug abuse until she received help at the age of 26. She noted that there was still tremendous stigmatisation against sex workers. There was a need for government to assist victims of the menace of sex trafficking and abuse that was affecting the destiny of young girls and boys on a daily basis. She noted that Embrace Dignity had helped her and had helped to restore her lost dignity. This organisation was busy helping other victims. She noted that not every girl or boy on the street wanted to stay on the street, but somebody was effectively forcing them to stay there.

Another Embrace Dignity representative, Ms Angela, noted that it was difficult for victims of sex trafficking and prostitution to be integrated back into the community, as a result of stigmatisation, and Parliament also needed to address this issue and help in the integration of former victims back into society. She urged Members of Parliament and stakeholders to support the cause of Embrace Dignity.

Ms Meano, representative, Masimayeni Group, noted that there were on-going support programmes and services provided by the Masimayeni Group to locate victims of sex trafficking and prostitution in Eastern Cape, and help to re-integrate them back into society by giving these victims different vocational training and counselling. She confirmed the current programme of the Group was to develop a national paper on prostitution. She noted that prostitution had a negative influence on girls and boys who were the future of the nation and society. She concluded by reaffirming the view of her organisation to end any form of slavery, gender mutilation, any form of abuse connected to the apartheid regime and the transition to a democratic South Africa. She noted that the Group had made a presentation to the Eastern Cape Provincial Parliament also. 

Mr Routledge concluded by calling on Parliament again to help on the issue of sex trafficking and prostitution in South Africa. He noted that his organisation is ready to present specific recommendation in support of human sex trafficking and prostitution.

Commission for Gender Equality input
Ms Janine Hicks, Commissioner, Commission for Gender Equality, introduced her delegation and said that the Commission for Gender Equality (CGE or the Commission) was engaged in an ongoing investigation, which touched also on how prostitutes and sex workers had been treated by the SA Police Service (SAPS) and other groups.

Another representative of the CGE noted that the mandate of the CGE was to protect and promote gender equality and to give a response to the investigations. She noted that one of the very important issues was the criminalisation of prostitutes and this meant that consideration would have to be given to issues such as people being forced into prostitution, the link between sex work and drugs, trafficking in persons, self-identified sex workers and the distinction with other categories of sex workers, which led to considerations of who exactly could be regarded as a sex worker.

She said that Mr Routledge had noted that there were areas where Parliament could assist in giving a voice to the voiceless and the vulnerable, such as victims of sex trafficking and prostitution. He had stated that not enough work had been done to investigate the issues of this very broad subject.

The question was how effective the SAPS were. The Minister of Justice had not made the report on prostitution public, although there was substantial evidence of the negative impact of prostitution on society. Criminalisation of sex workers was rife, and some health care workers had actually categorised a systemic abuse and had criticised the role of the police. Notwithstanding progressive legislation, policies and international agreement on the cause of gender equality, ending violence against women and the condition of women and girls remained unclear. She emphasised that the good stories of South Africa belied the gross violation of women’s rights, poor implementation of legislation policies, and poor resourcing of services to assist in combating sexual violence, abuse and promoting economic empowerment.

Mr Routledge said that essentially the petition that Embrace Dignity presented to Parliament called upon Parliament to set up a multi-party committee involving members of other relevant Portfolio Committees, such as Justice, Police, Labour, Health, Social Development, Transport, Mineral Resources and Defence. These departments could undertake investigations that could bring out the details and evidence of forced prostitution and sex trafficking. In addition, the DoJ&CD advised that the SALRC report in relation to sex work and prostitution be put to the Justice, Crime Prevention and Security (JCPS) Cluster, and that a report would be brought to Cabinet around April.

He pointed out that the life stories related today highlighted exploitation of a nine-year old child to sex abuse. He called upon Parliament to investigate relevant accusations about abuses, to investigate the position of victims and to propose support measures to stop the menace of sexual exploitation, to enable victims to pursue other purposeful options in life, and to give a proper voice and protection to sex workers. Finally, he emphasised the need for the Committee to exercise its power to fast track law reform, including decriminalisation of sex workers and access to full judicial hearings to assist them. He noted that South Africa was a signatory to various international treaties, and a member of various bodies, including USAid, World Health Organisation, UN Committee on Disaster Management, UN Health and Global HIV Society, amongst others, and thus had international obligations.

The Chairperson noted that all Committee Members would support all efforts to stop human trafficking; pointing out that this was against the international and South African law. He also supported the need for urgent law reform.

Mr M Mhlanga (ANC: Mpumalanga) said that he had experience in working closely with stakeholders on issues around sex trafficking and the effects on victims. The Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development had tabled a similar report last year, and there would be Cluster meetings to discuss the issues raised. He agreed that Parliament should conduct an investigation into the petition and other relevant Committees would also be conducting investigations, with a view to drawing a final report for deliberation and adoption. This report would be contentious and would no doubt spark much discussion because different sectors of society held different views – such as that prostitutes chose their profession, or that this work was contrary to religious teachings and thus offensive and immoral, and other views. The Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development would need to report back the views of a variety of stakeholders, and check the views carefully before making anything public. He added that many NGOs had raised a number of substantive issues and points, and it would be wise to consult with them and any strategies would have to be supported also by proper funding.

The Chairperson thanked Mr Mhlanga for raising a number of important points. 

The Chairperson asked whether any representatives of SAPS who were present at the meeting wanted to give their views.

One representative of SAPS said that he would not speak to the issues. He explained that he was a provincial representative and this was essentially a national issue and he was not mandated to speak to it.

Ms B Engelbrecht (DA, Gauteng) asked what the petitioners expected to see as an outcome of their petition.

Mr M Mohapi (ANC; Free State) said that this petition would need to be debated in another relevant committee before being referred to the multi-party committee. He suggested that perhaps it also ought to pass through one of the committees dealing with justice matters.

The Chairperson noted that the parliamentary committees dealing with justice issues were already involved in debate on these issues but he agreed that they would need to know what the petition essentially was about.

Mr Mohapi reiterated that he thought that there should be further engagement on this petition in other committees to oversee before this Committee dealt with it finally.

Ms G Manolope (ANC: Northern Cape) appreciated the effort of the petitioners to raise the pertinent issues of sex trafficking and women abuse. She wondered why the previous reports on the issue had not been presented prior to this petition. She further suggested that reports should be made available to the Parliament more often, and said the Department of Justice needed to speak up when reports had been drafted.

Ms T Wana (ANC: Eastern Cape) asked whether these issues raised now, urging that sex workers and victims of prostitution and trafficking be given a voice, were being raised also in other countries, and what those countries were doing to offer relief. This was an issue that made her very angry to consider their vulnerability. She emphasised that South African culture had to be promoted, and the exploitation of vulnerable persons prevented, as well as offering care to ensure the health of affected victims.

Mr D Ximbi (ANC: Western Cape) wanted to know what efforts the organisations presenting today had already made to assist victims in getting out of the cycle of prostitution, drugs and sex trafficking.

The Chairperson was grateful to all organisations and individuals who had spoken today, and raised the issues to expose the need. He asked what they thought was particularly needed, whether a multi-party hearing was a better vehicle to deal with the problem, and asked also how far they had reported to the Department of Justice to support the call.

Mr Routledge said that the benefit of referring the matter to a multi-party forum was that it had a diverse audience from different parts of the country who could make contributions on the issues.

Ms Grootboom added that the multi-party platform allowed for experts to make valuable contributions and open up public debate. A report that spoke to the issues would be relevant in enabling South Africans to access important issues and to become aware of and assess the gross human right violations that were being perpetuated on daily basis in the country. She urged that only a full investigation would reveal whether sex workers were really working voluntarily, or as a means of survival or if they were being forced into this kind of work by others.

Ms Hicks noted that the CGE presented quarterly progress reports of investigations, to the Portfolio Committee on Justice ,and the CGE had also engaged with some of the members of the executive to keep them fully informed on these matters.

The Chairperson said that this Committee would not like to see a duplication of the work, and he thought that after substantial debate had been held in this Committee it would be useful to forward a full report to the Portfolio Committee on Justice. The issues would be broader than perhaps originally anticipated and there was need for wider stakeholder contributions, particularly on possible ways to implement any recommendations coming out of the discussions.

Mr Mhlanga said that the current investigations may not be adequate, which meant that further investigations were warranted. He said that the reports would not be needed only to make the issues public but for the purposes of the record also.

Mr Mohapi agreed that the subject had not been fully debated and there was a need for ( further  investigation. He suggested that all departments should use this opportunity to explore all possible options before final reports were forwarded to committees such as the present one.

Ms Wana asked the CGE and the Embrace Dignity to what extent they had managed to engage with the stakeholders, and why previous investigations and reports might not have been adequate. She was a little worried about the possible duplication of responsibility and reports between the CGE and others.

Ms Engelbrecht suggested that any pending reports of previous investigations into these matters should be released first, before the Committee engaged in further deliberations.

The Chairperson agreed that the progress reports would first need to be studied, to check the recommendations.

Ms Manalope suggested that any other questions in relation to the petition could be submitted in writing to the Committee Secretary to forward on.

The meeting was adjourned.


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