Johannesburg - Over 2 000 sex trade survivors, women's and human rights advocates, anti-trafficking organisations, and frontline service providers from more than 60 countries have signed an open letter urging the South African government to reject the proposed Prostitution Bill.
The bill proposed by the Minister and Deputy Minister of Justice and Correctional Services, Ronald Lamola and John Jeffery, respectively, repeals all criminal offences related to prostitution, effectively decriminalising the sex trade (the "Jeffery Bill").
Along with the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW), the signatories include CAP International, Equality Now, the European Network of Migrant Women, the Sisterhood is Global Institute, SPACE International, the Survivor Empowerment and Support Programme (SESPE), and World Without Exploitation.
American author and feminist activist Gloria Steinem is also among the signatories.
According to CATW, the letter outlines the reasons for opposing the Jeffery Bill, citing the devastating consequences of a decriminalised sex trade in South Africa.
"An estimated 131 000–182 000 people are currently in prostitution in South Africa, almost all disenfranchised black women and girls. If the Jeffery Bill passes, that number will exponentially increase," added the organisation's statement.
Mickey Meji of SESPE said that the bill does not address the violence, terror, trauma, or even death that victims suffer at the hands of sex buyers, pimps or because of the system of prostitution itself.
"In fact, the Jeffery Bill would condemn generations of poor and vulnerable black women and girls to the sex trade with the blessing of my government," said Meji.
According to CATW, the bill would allow prostitution to occur in any "dwelling-house, building, room, out-house, shed, tent, place, field, enclosure, space, vehicle, boat, or any part thereof."
Concurrently, the Jeffery Bill's elimination of penalties for sex buyers and commercial sex establishments will dramatically grow the sex trade, increasing the demand for purchased sexual acts, which leads to sex trafficking. South Africa would also become a global destination for sex tourism.
Taina Bien-Aimé, CATW's executive director, added that the South African government would in effect authorise and profit from the sexual exploitation of women, girls, and marginalised groups in violation of its Constitution and commitments under international law.
"The Jeffery Bill is a gift to sex traffickers and brothel owners," said Bien-Aimé.
A statement from CATW pointed out that the signatories of this open letter call on South Africa to adopt a law known as the Abolitionist or Equality Model, a legal framework that solely decriminalises those bought and sold for sexual acts while still holding sex buyers and exploiters accountable for the grievous harm they perpetrate.
"The Equality Model also mandates that the government provide prostituted persons comprehensive medical services, educational opportunities, and exit strategies."
"South Africa has pledged to combat and eradicate abuse and violence against women and children, end gender-based discrimination, prevent sex trafficking, and suppress the exploitation of prostitution, especially of women and children. Progressive legislation such as the Equality Model promotes the human rights all South Africans are entitled to enjoy," read the statement.