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“Until every woman and girl is free”

By Jessa Mellea

For Peacemaker Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, South Africa’s struggle for peace and justice is not yet complete. The promises set forth in the country’s constitution—namely those that protect gender equality—have not, in her view, been fulfilled. 

Along with Embrace Dignity, an organization she founded in 2010, Nozizwe advocates for the adoption of the Abolitionist Equality Law in South Africa. Also known as the Swedish model or the Nordic model (after a law instituted in Sweden in 1999), it aims to abolish the system of prostitution by criminalizing buyers, rather than sellers. The new model would also create a holistic program to support individuals exiting prostitution, such as a dignity fund that would finance job training and support women starting new businesses. Countries such as Canada, Northern Ireland, France, Israel, and Ireland have already adopted the model.

Credit: Embrace Dignity

Currently, in South Africa, both buying and selling sex is illegal. This criminalization disproportionately impacts women in the sex trade, who are frequently arrested and fined by the police. “The system of prostitution victimizes them and the law victimizes them further,” Nozizwe notes. 

The Abolitionist Equality Law would work to target the source of the demand for the sex trade: the buyers. Those complicit in maintaining the structural elements of the prostitution industry, including brothel keepers and traffickers would also remain criminalized. This model is rooted in the feminist beliefs that drive Nozizwe to carry out this work. “Penalizing sex buyers is part of educating them that women are not objects, women are not commodities. It’s also for educating society. It’s part of dismantling patriarchy,” she says. “Prostitution perpetuates patriarchy. Patriarchy, in turn, entrenches prostitution. A vicious cycle.”

Nozizwe emphasizes that Embrace Dignity is a radical feminist organization: “Some people tend to think that we are judgmental, they think that we are basing our position on religion, whereas in fact, our belief is based fundamentally on feminist values and equality.” She strongly believes in women’s right to choose what to do with their bodies and refutes the idea that legalizing prostitution is true sexual liberation. 

Credit: Embrace Dignity

“For them to be making an informed choice and a full choice, there has to be other options. You can’t say somebody’s making a choice when there are no other options,” she says. “There are socio-economical factors that drive women and girls into the sex trade. Almost 98% of the girls and women that we come across, that we work with, say that this is not work they would have chosen but they chose it because they had no other options. It is a systematic exclusion of women, it’s oppression as we see it linked to other forms of oppression. Male domination is part of that oppression, economic oppression is part of it, which limits their choices.”

Economic hardship disproportionately affects women, Nozizwe explained. Even though girls enter school at the same rate as boys, girls graduate at a much lower rate. Families with limited resources who have to choose between sending their boys or their girls to school often decide to only keep the boys in school. These structures of discrimination extend through women’s lives. Rates of unemployment are higher for women. Banks discriminate against women seeking loans to start businesses, and rates of property ownership are much lower among women than men. These disadvantages—and the deep-seated patriarchal system they reveal—push women into the sex trade.

Credit: Embrace Dignity.

“I believe in choice, I believe in bodily integrity but this industry violates exactly that right, from the point of view that the women we work with experience harm, physical harm as well as psychological harm. Their right to psychological and physical integrity is harmed through their being involved in the industry.”

Nozizwe sees her work with Embrace Dignity as an extension of her previous work in peace and reconciliation. As she puts it, “national peacebuilding is about ensuring that communities can live together in justice. The work to ensure women enjoy their full rights in life, in the constitution, is part of peacebuilding.” As a leading activist in the anti-apartheid movement and member of parliament, she is committed to seeing that progress includes every sector of the population. Nozizwe explains that “we are pushing for the law to be changed so that [women], too, can experience the freedom for which we all struggled.”

She initially became interested in prostitution law after she left Parliament, when she was involved in a research project on the subject. By speaking directly to women involved in the sex trade, Nozizwe learned the complexities of their situations—and was challenged, too. Many of the women interviewed as part of the project told her that many researchers came to speak with them, but nothing changed. They wanted to know if she was any different—what could she offer them?

Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, Tanenbaum Peacemaker in Action

From that point, Nozizwe and Embrace Dignity began building relationships with women involved in the sex trade and survivors. “We would not be able to succeed in understanding the issues without the help of survivors,” Nozizwe says. The organization involves survivors in all of their work, provides tools to start new careers, and supports them in projects that bring awareness to the challenges they face.

Through her research, Nozizwe found that there were very few organizations that supported women who wanted to leave prostitution. Embrace Dignity began to look into advocacy to create more shelters and programs, but Nozizwe soon realized that they weren’t addressing the root of the problem. Rather than only having the ability to help some women, changing policies would allow them to help women across the country in need of these services.

Nozizwe’s efforts to pass the Abolitionist Equality law have been making headway in the South African government. This year, the government ensured Embrace Dignity that the bill would be tabled in Parliament.

“A growing number of countries are looking at the Equality Model Law as the most comprehensive and coherent policy option to address the harms and the demand that drives sex trafficking. Prostitution drives sex trafficking. Without the demand for purchased sex, there would be no supply,” Nozizwe notes. “We hope South Africa will be the ninth country to adopt the Equality Model, and the first in Africa to do so. As Mandela said, ‘Every woman who has to sell her life for sex, we condemn to a lifetime in prison.’ For me, the struggle continues until every woman and girl is free.”

While Nozizwe has primarily been working in South Africa, she emphasized that the sex trade is a global issue. Awareness of the harm caused by the sex trade “needs to grow, because there are still some people who think prostitution is inevitable,” she said. “Some call it the oldest profession. We call it the oldest oppression.”

By Jessa Mellea, September 2021