Combatting Human Trafficking for Purposes of Sexual Exploitation in South Africa and the Region

Governance and Human Rights

To commemorate 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women, the Embassy of France together with the Embassies of Ireland and Sweden, and the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR), hosted a policy dialogue on 25 November 2022 to interrogate the state of human trafficking for purposes of sexual exploitation in South Africa and the Southern Africa region.


This policy dialogue was located within debates in South Africa and the region on legislation related to commercial sex, as well as international prevention models addressing the demand that drives/fosters trafficking in human beings for sexual exploitation.

The roundtable was attended by 60 participants from civil society organisations and sex trade survivors from South Africa, Malawi and Zimbabwe; the Parliament of Malawi; South African Police Services; United Nations programmes; and development partners.

20221130 Tip Prostitution Event (1)

Swedish Ambassador Mr Håkan Juholt hosted the event


It included two panel discussions and an open discussion with the participants. The first panel focused on the state of human trafficking and sexual exploitation in South Africa. The second panel brought to the fore the lived experiences of survivors and a regional perspective on regulating the sex trade as a way to counter human trafficking.

The discussion centred around five key topics:

  1. Understand and address the links between the sex trade and trafficking in persons (TiP) for sexual exploitation.
  2. Recognise prostitution as an inherent form of sexual and gender-based violence.
  3. Adopt a legal framework that effectively protects the integrity, safety and dignity of the persons involved in the sex trade.
  4. Foster the agency of the persons in the sex trade, focusing on effective exit programmes.
  5. Increase prevention, justice and accountability for victims of TiP and sexual exploitation.

We must tackle the myth that there is economic freedom and empowerment, or bodily autonomy, in selling sex.


Human Trafficking for Purposes of Sexual Exploitation in South Africa and the region

The brutality of trafficking for sexual exploitation, including exploitation of the prostitution of others, forced marriage and sexual slavery cannot be overstated. Regular research, conducted by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), consistently shows that the most detected form of human trafficking is for the purpose of sexual exploitation – with the overwhelming majority of victims being women and girls (over 90 percent). Trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation accounts for around 65 percent of all detected human trafficking cases.

As reported over the past few years, South Africa is a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labour and sex trafficking including domestic servitude. South African children ( in some instances as young as 7-8 years old) are recruited from poor, rural areas to urban areas, such as Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban, and Bloemfontein, where they are subjected to sexual exploitation and trafficking, domestic servitude as well as being forced to work in street vending,food service, begging, criminal activities, and agriculture.

Malawi is also seeing an increase in trafficking in persons and sexual exploitation, particularly in children.

In Malawi, legalizing prostitution was thought to be progressive. Instead, it unleashed more abuse and made it more difficult to identify victims.


French Ambassador-at-large for Combatting Organised Crime, H.E. Jean-Claude Brunet, and Swedish Ambassador-at-large for Combatting Trafficking in Persons, H.E. Anna Ekstedt, spoke at the event. Ambassador Brunet touched on France’s commitment, under the joint French-Swedish initiative to combat human trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation, to highlight the links between trafficking in human beings for sexual exploitation on the one hand, and the legal frameworks that govern prostitution on the other. Illustrating the effects of the abolitionist law adopted by France in 2016, he stressed the importance of taking into account the multiple vulnerabilities of people who find themselves in the prostitution system, and prioritizing their protection and agency. This legislative model (also known as the “Equality Law” model) focuses on changing the mindset & on increased responsibility on the demand side of prostitution, and fostering the agency of girls and women to avoid or escape situations of sexual exploitation.

Ambassador Brunet recalled that trafficking in persons for purposes of sexual exploitation is one of the worst violations of human rights and dignity, and that the abolitionist model contributes positively to the fight against criminal sex trafficking networks.

Calls for recognising prostitution as an inherent form of sexual and gender-based violence, and for breaking the supply-and-demand chain of the sex trade business model

The policy dialogue produced a series of recommandations, which will inform further engagements on this issues:

  • Legislation and interventions that aim at tackling the demand for buying sex should be prioritized.
  • An intersectional approach is needed, that addresses various phenomena that feed into and foster sexual exploitation:
    • pornography, as it condones the objectification and commodification of girls and women (pornography is dominantly about servicing men’s pleasure at any expense, and it perpetuates the patriarchal norm of making others’ bodies available for men’s benefits);
    • the role of internet and the social media in luring, recruiting, and abusing children and adults into sexual exploitation;
    • the “blesser–blessee” phenomenon (transactional sex), often a precursor to further sexual exploitation;
    • the socio-economic determinants that play a big part in luring vulnerable people to be sexually exploited.
  • Prostitution should be treated as an inherent form of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) and recognised as such in the National Strategic Plan against GBV and Femicide (NSP-GBVF).
  • Reconsider the notion of ‘sex work’, as it glamorises sexual exploitation, violence and what is a highly traumatic experience. It may not be conducive to restoring the dignity and empowering the persons involved in the sex trade, regardless of the conditions they “work” in.
  • The South African Government and Parliament should genuinely open up the key and strategic policy spaces for engagement on the reform of the legislative framework.

Survivors’ voices are often sidelined by people who promote ‘sex work’.


  • South Africa should carefully consider what legal model would best protect the integrity and dignity of those involved in the sex trade. The country should refrain from legalising abuse through full decriminalization of the sex trade, without considering the drivers and vulnerability factors at play in the sector.
    Instead, the focus should be on empowering those vulnerable to the sex trade so that they can make real free choices to avoid or escape violence and exploitation, and have the opportunity to pursue alternative livelihoods.
  • The Parliament of Malawi seems open to reconsidering its legislation which legalises prostitution, in light of the increase in TiP (illegal) and sexual exploitation experienced in the country.
  • Boost effective economic alternative and diversion programmes, both for the victims of trafficking in persons (TiP) and sexual exploitation and the “enablers” of exploitation (e.g. families, communities). This would allow the original career aspirations of the persons in the sex trade to be realised.

Stop funding condoms, fund exit programmes instead.


  • Invest in healing and rehabilitation for both victims and perpetrators.
  • Collect data on the sex trade, to better understand the drivers and effects on persons involved in the sex trade.
  • Roll out TiP prevention interventions in schools.
  • Roll out interventions in schools and other relevant constituencies addressing patriarchal norms, attitudes and behaviours in which men view women as commodities.
  • Invest in education, skills development, and economic empowerment of disadvantaged and marginalised communities most at risk of being a source of trafficked and/or prostituted persons. Black women’s economic empowerment is to be prioritized.
  • Strengthen the capacity of law enforcement to uphold the laws against TiP. This includes:
    • Adequate budgeting to ensure sufficient financial, human and technical resources to that effect. There is a need to engage the South African Treasury on this matter.
    • Training service providers (police/justice / social services) in trauma-informed approaches.
  • Civil society organisations involved in fighting human trafficking, should report corrupt law enforcement officers, to prevent undermining the credibility of the whole force.
  • Trade agreements should be reviewed, especially for sectors involving human resources working in foreign countries, as these are conducive to exploitation of persons.
  • Create accountability platforms and mechanisms for victims of TiP and sexual exploitation.
  • Engage all government departments that have a role to play to prevent and respond to TiP for sexual exploitation. In South Africa, this means beyond the Department of Justice: the Department of Social Development; Department of Basic Education; Department of Higher Education and Training; Department of Police; Department of Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities; National Treasury; Department of Small Business Development; Department of Trade, Industry and Competition.

The full report on the main points raised during the presentations and discussions, as well as the participants’ recommendations, can be downloaded here.


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