The normalisation of gender discrimination is blamed as the crucial factor that makes women and girls vulnerable to human traffickers.

Girls as young as 10 sold as sex slaves in South Africa

Persomé Oliphant
The normalisation of gender discrimination is blamed as the crucial factor that makes women and girls vulnerable to human traffickers.

One in three of the identified females who were trafficked for the purposes of sexual exploitation in South Africa last year were girls younger than 18 – with some of them as young as 10, according to human-trafficking expert and University of the Free State researcher Monique Emser.

Research conducted in 2014 by the research firm LexisNexis, as part of its annual human trafficking index, tracked down 16 women and eight girls, who had been trafficked and sexually exploited, from media reports. Emser, who was one of the researchers for the index, said the cases were selected from reported incidents, which are “generally higher-profile court cases” and, therefore, “barely scratch the surface” of the true number of girls who are trafficked in the country every year.

The Salvation Army reports that 1 000 girls are trafficked to South Africa each year from Mozambique alone.

Emser said the trafficking of children for sexual exploitation is higher in the Southern African region than other areas in Africa – such as Nigeria and Chad – where children are also often used as mercenaries.

“But this is not to say that other forms of trafficking don’t take place in South Africa,” she said.

Push factors
Javu Baloyi, spokesperson for the Commission for Gender Equality, said that human traffickers easily capitalise on traditions of migration into and in the country as well as established vulnerabilities such as “poverty, weak education systems, unemployment and the general lack of opportunities for most people in the region, especially women”.

“These ‘push factors’ and the form of exploitation typically experienced, namely sexual abuse and recruitment for the local commercial sex industry, render women and girls more vulnerable to trafficking than men and boys,” he added.

Emser identified “patriarchal attitudes” in the country as a significant driver of the trafficking of young girls and women. She said these attitudes are endemic in South African society and extend beyond men.

“Other forms of sexual exploitation, which we have seen take place, are where mothers for example have facilitated the trafficking of their daughters, which is a really worrisome trend,” she said. “It’s shocking for us that a mother would do this to her own child, but this is a sad reality.”

Baloyi said that women have an “inferior status in society compared to men’s”, which makes them easier to exploit and also less likely to report crimes to the police.

‘A complex and hidden crime’
Emser said fewer than 30% of human trafficking victims are identified by police because “it’s such a complex and hidden crime”.

“Specifically where children are involved, many don’t actually understand their rights or even how to report abuse,” she said.

Research conducted by children’s rights organisation Molo Songololo found that domestic violence against women was a significant driver for pushing young people on to the streets where they are vulnerable to exploitation.

Baloyi said that “high levels of sexual abuse and gender-based violence” against women and girls “being directly caused by gender inequality and power imbalances, and the normalising of gender discrimination within our patriarchal society” is largely to blame.

“As a result of these factors, women and girls are more vulnerable to trafficking, are placed in situations where they are more desperate for economic opportunities, and have less power and means to resist being trafficked – sometimes being forced into situations of being trafficked by their own family,” he said.

Sold again and again
Margaret Stafford, a former co-ordinator for the Salvation Army in charge of monitoring human trafficking, said that women and girls are easier to control because of their lower societal status.

“Traffickers go to vulnerable communities and lure girls through deception of work and education, promising them the world,” she said.

Stafford said girls may “fall for” these promises because they “want a better way of life” that was unavailable to them in their immediate surroundings.

Stafford said that young girls, who are virgins, can be sold for as much as R20 000.

“But, of course, they can then sell her again. You can sell a drug once but you can sell a person as many times as you need to.”

Hawks spokesperson Hangwani Mulaudzi said the directorate for priority crimes investigation had set up a desk to deal with the scourge of human trafficking and regarded human-trafficking crimes as a priority.

Persome Oliphant is a Bhekisisa fellow. Oliphant's fellowship is sponsored by the United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA. 

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