Women and children buy their way into SA with sex, says new report

A new report describes how desperate women and children sell their bodies for a pass to a better life, while also emphasising the lack of true research into the depth of human trafficking into South Africa.


A new report on child trafficking highlights the desperate lengths vulnerable migrant children are willing to go to in the hope of a better life – including buying their way into South Africa with their bodies.

The Centre for Child Law on Friday launched ‘Child Trafficking in South Africa: Exploring the myths and realities’, borne out of concerns that the real issues facing most children moving across borders were being sidelined.

This not to downplay child trafficking, but rather to “caution against the creation of a misleading picture because it can render children more vulnerable through the misrepresentation of their realities”.

Penned by Dr Rebecca Walker, Dr Stanford Mahati and Isabel Magaya, the report was in part based on interviews with people working with child migrants and child migrants themselves.

“Often, they had to figure out how to get across a border safely by bribing someone or relying on contacts or, in the case of some of the girls, having sex with the South African soldiers patrolling the South Africa – Mozambique border,” the authors said.

On Monday, Defence spokesperson Siphiwe Dlamini was adamant incidents like this had never been brought to the department’s attention.

“And as recently as last week, we took a team to Limpopo and nothing of that nature came up,” he said.

He said the department would take allegations like this “very seriously,” though.

“The minister has put together a ministerial task team to look at sexual harassment both internally and involving civilians,” he added.

But last week’s report referenced a “key informant” at the Lebombo Border Post, who had told researchers “migrant women and girls know the ‘rules of engagement’ – that the soldiers want sex and they will allow them to cross the border without the correct travelling documents at informal crossing points in the bush”.

However, the report said while this was “clearly sexual exploitation by those in a position of power,” it was not necessarily trafficking – the movement of a child for the purpose of subsequently exploiting him or her.

“Contrary to the dominant thinking that migrant children are having sex under trafficking conditions, evidence from across the sites suggests that a number of girls who were engaging in transactional sex were not victims of trafficking. The children themselves spoke of this in terms of strategies of survival,” the report said.

In fact, the interviews – which took place in border areas in Limpopo and Mpumalanga as well as the migrant hubs of Johannesburg and Cape Town – found evidence of “very few” cases of child trafficking.

“While the young people and some service providers identified a trend of migrant children being lured across borders by empty promises, none of the experiences described amounted to trafficking. In fact, we found a consensus amongst service providers and migrant children themselves that they are not victims of trafficking but made a ‘choice’ to leave their homes and be in South Africa to look for work or to attend school,” it said.

Walker, Mahati and Magaya argued a “common conflation of trafficking with smuggling and other forms of migration” had contributed towards harsher immigration and migration-related policies which were focused on securing borders and not protecting “vulnerable migrants, including women and children”.

But more “in-depth, country wide, rigorous, and ethical” research was needed, for a clearer picture of the South African landscape.

The call for improved data is not a new one. Trafficking expert Dr Marcel Van Der Watt and the Institute for Security Studies’ Dr Johan Burger in 2018 co-authored an article labelling the extent of South Africa’s human trafficking problem an “elusive statistical nightmare”.

“Available data sources reveal little about the prevalence of the phenomenon in the country. Even numbers on the volume of cases successfully prosecuted, and victims identified and liberated, are hard to come by,” they said at the time.

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