2019.04.19 Prostituzione nigeriane

‘Defending Dignity’ and changing lives in South Africa

The number of people trapped in human trafficking more than doubled last year in South Africa and observers warn the figures are rising. A South African rights activist talks about her struggle to pressure the government to promulgate better policies as she strives to rescue women and girls from the streets and help them regain their dignity and a future.

By Linda Bordoni

According to the independent Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, women and girls are most at risk of trafficking for sexual exploitation, and in South Africa, the remunerative trade is on the rise.

The country’s National Freedom Network reports an estimated 155,000 people are currently enslaved by the fast-growing industry, while sex trafficking rings in South Africa exploit girls as young as ten. 

High unemployment, low wages, and migration pandemic-related insecurity increase the vulnerability of exploitation, particularly of youth, African women, and foreign migrants.

One South African woman fighting to stop the scourge, defined by Pope Francis as “an open wound in the body of Christ and humanity,” is Johannesburg-based journalist Pinky Khoabane, the founder and executive director of a non-profit organization called “Defending Dignity.”

Speaking to Vatican Radio, she said her determination to make a difference for so many vulnerable women stemmed from a drive she took some three or four years ago, during which she saw many young girls on the side of the road on a very cold winter's day.

“I stopped to really look at what they were doing and realized they were being sold or were selling their bodies. I was shocked because they couldn't have been 18 years old,” she said.

Listen to Pinky Khoabane

Khoabane expressed her dismay on Twitter; some of the responses disappointed her, but others were an eye-opener and led her to join a global movement that works to end sexual exploitation.

 “As I got involved, I discovered that human trafficking is very much linked to prostitution. Now, I also know that food security is very linked to that whole industry,” she said.

So, she added at “Defending Dignity” we started off by lobbying for law reform through advocacy with a focus on prostitution, and she expressed hope for a bill to be discussed in Parliament at the end of the year.

Meanwhile, Khoabane said, her organization is raising awareness of human trafficking and is working to establish what they call “exit programmes” for victims who want to acquire training and skills so they can undertake income-generating projects and become autonomous.

Champions of human rights and dignity

Two quotes are inscribed on the first page of the “Defending Dignity” flyer: 

The first, by Nelson Mandela, says “For every woman & girl violently attacked, we reduce our humanity. For every woman forced into unprotected sex, because men demand this, we destroy dignity & pride. Every woman who has to sell her life for sex we condemn to a lifetime in prison. For every moment we remain silent, we conspire against our women.”

The second is by Pope Francis, who says, “Human trafficking is a crime against humanity. We must unite our efforts to free victims and stop this crime.”

Khoabane said their condemnation and appeal for action echo her beliefs.

“In our view, this world of human trafficking, as Pope Francis says in that quote, is not only injustice, it's a criminal act which needs to be stopped,” she said, noting that “the sex trade, that whole industry, is violence against women, against human rights, and we need to work very hard to end it.”

Exploitation rooted in injustice

South Africa is the continent's most developed nation, but its history is rooted in colonialism and apartheid and the sores of injustice continue to fester, with a huge gap between the rich and the poor who suffer injustice and inequality and are prey to exploitation.

It is also a port of arrival (and departure) for millions of African migrants fleeing poverty, conflict and the climate crisis. As Khoabane confirmed, they too are extremely vulnerable victims of traffickers and the sex trade.

“South Africa is targeted by the traffickers,” she explained saying it is where people arrive and where they leave to “be trafficked into various countries around the world.”

At the beginning of February, she recalled a report released by US AID showing that South Africa is one of the top destinations and exit points for trafficking.

“Traffickers actually say it's so much easier in South Africa to leave with someone, as the laws are very lax, so they find it very easy to come in, and very easy to leave,” Khoabane said.

Upcoming bill to legalise the sex trade

South African legislators are currently moving towards legalising the sex trade, and this, according to Khoabane, will make more people vulnerable to human traffickers.

“Although the government would like us to believe that it's actually a safer route legalising the sex trade,” she warned, “It makes people who are already vulnerable even more so because the sex trade actually targets the most marginalised” and in legalising “we believe you are just heightening their vulnerability.”

She highlighted how vulnerability, in this case, is rooted in poverty and unemployment that recent statistics put at 30/32 per cent, and amongst the youth at a staggering 60/65 per cent.

It is young people, she added, who are also the most targeted by traffickers and all this makes for an explosive situation when it comes to the sex trade.

‘Defending Dignity'

Pinky Khoabane went on to illustrate the mission and work of “Defending Dignity” and said her team has spent the past three to four years “trying to show government that there is a different option from legalising prostitution.”

“Our view is one that says, criminalise the pimps and the brothel owners. Those are the perpetrators, not the women,” she said.

But legalising, she explained, “means everybody becomes decriminalised,” and it will be impossible to know who is driving the trade.

“Defending Dignity” is also committed to its outreach programme “where we go out to the survivors on the street, help them out with food, HIV counselling, (…) and now, we've taken a step further to establish what we call Dignity Farms where we will teach women how to produce their own food and give them counselling.”

They are established to be holistic centres where survivors will learn skills that enable them to have income “with a view that they will then leave and go start their lives afresh.”

The “Defending Dignity” founder concluded by voicing her gratitude for those, “especially of the calibre of the Pope, who can really stand up against some of the world's worst actions,” including human trafficking that also leads to prostitution.

“It’s organised crime!” Pinky Khoabane reiterated, “and we are grateful to him for having stood up and spoken out several times, and to all the other people in the world who stand up and speak up against atrocities and injustices.”

If you would like to contribute to the work of “Defending Dignity” in South Africa, you can write an email to

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23 May 2023, 17:18