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International Organization for Migration (IOM)

Seduction, sale and slavery: Trafficking in women & children for sexual exploitation in southern Africa

Jonathan Martens, Maciej ‘Mac’ Pieczkowski & Bernadette van Vuuren-Smyth

International Organization for Migration (IOM)

May 2003

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Executive Summary

With the surge of publicity that accompanied an official request by then-President Nelson Mandela to have the remains of Saartjie Baartman returned to South Africa in 1994, her story may be the most notorious case of African trafficking never to have been named as such, but Saartjie Baartman’s experience of recruitment by deception and cross-border transportation for sexual exploitation is one common to millions of women and children worldwide.

Southern Africa hosts a diverse range of human trafficking activities, from the global operations of Chinese triad groups and Russian ‘mafia’, to the local trade in persons across land borders perpetrated by local syndicates. The region’s young women and children are especially vulnerable to the recruitment tactics of traffickers because civil unrest and economic deprivation leave them with few opportunities at home, and make migration a natural and common solution. South Africa, the region’s most prosperous country, is an appealing lure. As an historical magnet for job-seekers in Southern Africa, its porous borders make it the obvious destination for migrants and asylum-seekers and, considering its flourishing sex industry, for traffickers as well.

From August 2002 to February 2003, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) conducted a research assessment of the trafficking in women and children for sexual exploitation in Southern Africa. The methodology was based primarily on interviews with trafficking victims, sex workers, traffickers, police and government officials, grassroots NGOs, and the media. The South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC)’s Special Assignment programme was largely responsible for documenting and researching the cases and trends of trafficking in Mozambique. Elsewhere, IOM researchers conducted 232 interviews, twenty-five of these with trafficked women and children from eleven countries.

The major findings may be summarized as follows:

  • Refugees are both victims and perpetrators of trafficking to South Africa. As male refugees encounter unemployment and xenophobia in South Africa, some choose to recruit female relatives from their countries of origin to South Africa. These women are usually 25 years and older, married and have children. Individual refugee traffickers are assisted by ethnically-based syndicates in delivering a recruiting letter to the victim in her country of origin, escorting her to South Africa, and sexually assaulting her as an initiation to sex work should she resist upon arrival. The refugee trafficker takes the earnings the woman receives as a sex worker and, to protect his investment, he assists her in applying for refugee status to prevent deportation if police detain her.


  • In Lesotho, children from rural areas gravitate to Maseru to escape domestic violence, and the effects of HIV/AIDS. As street children, they are coerced or forcibly abducted by white men before being taken across the border with the consent of border officials to border towns and asparagus farms in the Eastern Free State. There they are held captive in private houses where they are sexually and sadistically assaulted over several days by small groups of men. These children are finally returned to the border, or deposited on the streets of towns in the Eastern Free State to find their own way home. Street children in Maseru are also trafficked by long-distance truck drivers, who use them as sex slaves on their routes. These children travel as far as Cape Town, Zimbabwe, and Zambia.


  • Mozambican victims include both girls and young women between the ages of 14 and 24. They are offered jobs as waitresses or sex workers in Johannesburg, and pay their traffickers ZAR 500 to smuggle them across the border in minibus taxis either at Komatipoort or Ponta do Ouro. They stay in transit houses along South Africa’s border with Mozambique and Swaziland for one night where they are sexually assaulted as an initiation for the sex work that awaits them. Once in Johannesburg, some are sold to brothels in the Central Business District (CBD) for ZAR 1000. Others are sold as slaves on private order for ZAR 550, or shopped around to mineworkers on the West Rand as ‘wives’ for ZAR 650. An estimated 1000 Mozambican victims are recruited, transported, and exploited in this way every year, earning traffickers approximately ZAR 1 million annually.


  • Malawi is characterized by three different trafficking patterns. Firstly, Malawian businesswomen recruit young women to pursue employment or educational opportunities in Europe. Sometimes payment is made to the victim’s parents. Upon arrival in the Netherlands, the victim is sold to a Nigerian madam for US$10 000, and told that she must work as a sexworker to pay off a debt of US$40 000. The Nigerian madam will ask for her underwear, hair, and nail clippings in a ritual that threatens death by magic if the victim does not cooperate. The victim is then sold to another Nigerian agent from Belgium, Germany, or Italy, or rented to local brothels. One brothel in the Netherlands brands with an identifying mark the sex slaves who work there. If the victim does not perform sexually to the satisfaction of the brothel owner, she is beaten, and given sex lessons, or resold. Secondly, both girls and boys may be recruited in the holiday resorts along Lake Malawi by European sex tourists, who pay money to the children’s parents with promises of educational opportunities in Europe. These children may then be featured in pornographic videos that are transmitted over the Internet with the children’s names and contact details included. In Europe, the children may be sexually exploited in private homes, or sold to pedophile rings. Thirdly, women and girl children are recruited along major transportation routes in Malawi by long distance truckers who promise marriage, jobs, or educational opportunities in South Africa. Once in Johannesburg, the victim is held as the trafficker’s sex slave in a flat in the CBD, and he will bring clients to the flat who will pay him to have sex with her. Malawian businesswomen also traffic women and girl children overland to brothels in Johannesburg.


  • Recruited by Thai agents in Thailand, victims may be unwitting young women from rural Thailand, or ageing female sex workers from Bangkok. The former are promised restaurant jobs, while the latter are told of the money to be earned in sex work in South Africa. They travel by air, either directly from Bangkok, or through Hong Kong, Kuala Lampur, and Singapore to Johannesburg International Airport (JIA), where they are met by a Thai or South African agent who sells them to brothels throughout the country. Victims from Thailand are told that they must earn US$7500 for their freedom, and they are confined and forced to work 12 – 16 hours a day, even when ill, until the debt is repaid. South African clients may marry victims by buying their contracts, although some are forced to continue doing sex work after the marriage to earn profits for their husbands.


  • Triad-linked Chinese or Taiwanese agents recruit Chinese women by promising work in Chinese-owned businesses in South Africa, or the prospect of studying in English language schools. Women may even pay to be smuggled out of China. When recruited to work in Chinese-owned restaurants, clubs, or on fishing vessels in South Africa, they are forced into sex work indefinitely. If they come to South Africa to study English, they are often allowed to complete their courses before being told that they have a US$12 500 debt that they must repay by doing sex work. In either case, these Chinese women have no freedom of movement, and their traffickers take their earnings. In addition to being a destination country for Chinese trafficking victims, South Africa is also a transit country for others who are transported onwards to Europe or the United States.


  • Russian and Bulgarian mafias traffic Russian and other Eastern European women on South African visas fraudulently obtained in Moscow to upscale South African brothels. These Eastern European women are promised jobs as waitresses, dancers, strippers, and hostesses in South Africa, but are not told that they must pay a debt of US$2000 per month for six months or more as sex workers until they arrive in South Africa. If they refuse to cooperate, they and their families back at home are threatened with violence.
Despite the immense profit trafficking for sexual exploitation generates for criminal syndicates, and the lawlessness and social and political disarray to which they contribute, this contemporary slave trade in women and children has yet to be addressed adequately in Southern Africa. To curtail trafficking in persons in the region requires the cooperation of the different states affected to criminalize the trade, share information, protect victims, prosecute traffickers, and raise public awareness in source, transit, and destination countries. Just as organized crime exploits the opportunities presented by globalisation to extend this modern slave trade, so must states, intergovernmental agencies, and civil society exploit that same advantage to turn moral condemnation into collective action.

Pretoria, May 2003



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