Giving Women in South Africa a Way Out of Sex Work

A little over a year ago, Thandi* found herself with a seemingly unsolvable set of circumstances. An immigrant to South Africa from Zambia, she...

A little over a year ago, Thandi* found herself in a seemingly unsolvable set of circumstances. An immigrant from Zambia to South Africa, she had been working as a prostitute in Cape Town and was seeking a way to get out of the industry.

She was sleeping in a train station, didn’t have any family in the country, and the only people she knew in the city were also involved in sex work. When she appealed to a local church, they didn’t know how to help her other than by giving her dried beans—which of course she had no means to cook.

When her situation got “very, very desperate” she went to the only organization she had heard of that worked with sex workers, but found that they offered the very opposite of what she needed.

"They advocated for a legalization of sex work, whereas I was looking to get out of it."

Twelve months later, Thandi’s life looks radically different. She eventually found Embrace Dignity, a non-profit organization in Cape Town that advocates for legal reform to end prostitution and sex trafficking while offering services and support to women seeking exit, known as ‘Sisters.’ With their help, Thandi has fully transitioned to gainful employment and is once again honing the career skills she used in her native Zambia.


Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, who co-founded Embrace Dignity in 2010 with her husband, is a life-long gender activist who also served in South Africa’s first post-apartheid parliament. She says that the feminist struggle in South Africa often gets lost in the country’s other racial and economic problems. That is part of the reason why Embrace Dignity’s stance on prostitution is absolute: prostitution is not the world’s oldest profession, but the world’s oldest oppression. In other words, it’s only chosen as an income source when a woman lacks a viable alternative.

“We actually see [prostitution] as being very much embedded in gender inequality,” Madlala-Routledge says. “And in a country like South Africa—where there is a history of racism and sexism—what you are doing if you legalize prostitution is communicating that women’s bodies are available if you have money. Men then gain this understanding that women’s bodies are there for their gratification, [even if they don’t have money].”

Masiphakameni (‘let us rise’ in isiXhosa) is the name of the self-empowerment group that Embrace Dignity facilitates for the Sisters. The women receive a stipend and meet three days a week to speak about their struggles without fear of stigmatization. They are also trained in career skills, literacy, computing and most recently, photography—the results of which were exhibited at the Photovoice exhibition at the University of Cape Town in August.

“One of the biggest problems for these women is isolation: from their community, from friends, from family, and even from the sisters they are working with in the street,” Madlala-Routledge says.

“Slowly they've started to feel comfortable talking to people outside their support group,” adds Thandi. “When we did the Photovoice launch here at our offices we had a very huge turn out of people that the sisters had never met before and they were sharing their stories openly.”

The group has been meeting for a year, and while it only includes 10 former sex workers at present, Embrace Dignity sees the group as a scalable model that other community organizations throughout South Africa can replicate. The goal is to create a network of self-help resources for women who find themselves in a situation similar to Thandi’s.

The biggest issue in South Africa, a country with roughly a 25 percent unemployment rate, is finding sustainable career paths so the Sisters don’t have to resort back to sex work. One of the ways Embrace Dignity does this is via mentorships. One such mentor is the runner up of Master Chef South Africa, who provides training in the fundamentals of running a successful restaurant, from crafting an enticing menu to keeping track of finances. Other sisters are learning the business side of beadwork, and another now owns a camera and is pursuing photography.

But perhaps the most significant thing Embrace Dignity does is less tangible in nature: it begins to give women their agency and self esteem back and allows them to define themselves beyond what their bodies are worth.

“The sisters have improved so much and so have I,” Thandi says. “Before I went to Embrace Dignity, the people I knew would never help me achieve what I wanted to achieve—instead they would have pulled me back to what I was trying to run away from. Here I've met a lot of people and started my life all over again.”

*Name has been changed

Photos courtesy of Embrace Dignity's Photovoice Project