Bringing Light to the Darkness of Human Trafficking (Trafficking in Persons)

Original Article from ECPAT - Click here to view


The Landscape of Sexual Exploitation of Children in South Africa


south africa's score

South Africa ranked 16 out of the 60 countries scored by the Out of the Shadows Index on the country’s response to child sexual exploitation and abuse, with a score of 58.1. Within Sub-Saharan Africa, South Africa was the top performer among 16 countries surveyed, ranking just ahead of Uganda (57.3) and Tanzania (56.5).

South Africa’s position on the Index’s ranking, is explained by a strong legal framework to protect children from sexual exploitation and abuse, a committed technology sector and knowledgeable frontline support workers.

However, much remains to be done to ensure that South African children live free from sexual exploitation and abuse. For example, limited training and support for professionals working with child victims as well as few opportunities for multi-sectoral collaborations, have been reportedly hampering efforts to tackle child sexual exploitation and abuse in the country.

Environment (57/100)

The Out of the Shadows Index reports South Africa is having a relatively stable environment, but South African children are still highly impacted by a context of violence, poverty and inequality. This can leave them with considerable risks of becoming victims of sexual exploitation.

2016 study says 35% of the students reported sexual abuse.

In 2016, the Optimus Foundation published a study on sexual victimisation of children in South Africa: respondents to the survey included female and male 15 to 17-year old adolescents recruited from schools (4,086) and households (5,631).8 35.4% of the school student sample reported some form of sexual abuse.


The Government of South Africa has made huge progress to reverse structural inequalities, poverty, and the systemic segregation of apartheid through policies and action on equal education, access to health services, social development, social security, public transport and housing.

Despite policy and progress, South Africa is still considered one of the most unequal countries in the world. It scored just 37/100 for the Index’s indicator on income inequality. In its latest country brief on poverty and equity (October 2019), the World Bank reported that in 2014, 55% of the South African population lived below the national poverty line and that poverty is consistently highest amongst the category of children. In 2016, UNICEF recorded that 56% of children in South Africa were living in families whose incomes or consumption levels fall below the national monetary poverty threshold.

Professionals interviewed for the ECPAT report on the Landscape of Sexual Exploitation of Children in South Africa report confirmed that poverty is often associated with sexual exploitation in the country.

“There is such a problem with poverty in this country. People are so desperate for jobs [that] they get exploited,”

— research participant, KwaZulu-Natal. 


South Africa scored just 4/100 for the Index’s indicator which measures how perceptions of violence in a society can influence the community’s attitude towards sexual exploitation and abuse of children.

Children accounted for 1,014 of the murder victims and 18,586 of the rape victims. 

According to the latest statistics (April 2018 – March 2019) provided by the South African Police Service together with Statistics South Africa, murder rates increased by 3.4% compared to 2017/2018, with 21,022 murders committed in South Africa in the analysed period.

Sexual violence in South Africa is high with the number of reported rapes increasing to 41,583 cases per year compared to 40,035 in 2017/2018 (3.9% increase). Children accounted for 1,014 of the murder victims and 18,586 of the rape victims.

School cultures that permit institutional violence discourage abused and exploited children from seeking help.

Numerous data sources show that violence is widely experienced by South African children in different forms and settings, including in schools, families, and communities. For instance, although corporal punishment at school has been banned in South Africa since 1997, 5.7% of students reported experiencing it at school in 2018, with highest prevalence within Free State (12.1%) and Eastern Cape (11.5%) schools. School cultures that permit institutional violence discourage abused and exploited children from seeking help, and can even create circumstances for sexual exploitation to occur. When children have fear at school, this culture annuls the protective mechanism that positive school environments can have in reducing children’s vulnerabilities, including to sexual exploitation.


  • South Africa implements school-based behaviour change programming that addresses young people’s attitudes towards violence
  • South Africa enforces law on corporal punishment and provides teacher training on pedagogic methods (such as positive discipline) to be used instead

Legal framework (77/100)

South Africa has ratified all the major international conventions relevant to the fight against child sexual exploitation and is party to a number of international and regional frameworks. South Africa has gradually developed and adopted comprehensive and quality national laws addressing the issue in compliance with these. In particular:

  • The Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act 32 of 2007 (Sexual Offences Act) contains detailed and expansive provisions prohibiting different forms of child sexual exploitation.
  • The Prevention and Combating of Trafficking in Persons Act No 7 of 2013 (PACOTIP), is an attempt to consolidate the regulatory framework to combat trafficking, including of children for sexual purposes, and fill gaps left by common law and statutory law.
  • The Cybercrimes Bill 2017 was passed in November 2018 by the Portfolio Committee for Justice and Correctional Services and sent to the National Assembly for debate. The Bill proposes several amendments to existing legislation, such as aligning the South African legal definition of child sexual abuse material with those provided by the Council of Europe Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse, called the Lanzarote Convention, and the Council of Europe Convention on Cybercrime, called the Budapest Convention.  According to media reports and national stakeholders, it is aimed to be adopted by the end of 2019. 
  • The Film and Publications Amendment Act 11 of 2019, was signed by the South African President early October 2019, and includes provisions aimed at protecting children from harmful content and sexual exploitation online.
Definitions of child sexual exploitation in national legislation are often too broad and can result in cases not being prosecuted.

However, limitations still exist in legislation. The applicability to children of the provisions established to protect victims of trafficking is unclear and inconsistencies exist in different laws about the legal age of marriage, as discussed below.

Additionally, professionals working to support victims of sexual exploitation reported in the Landscape of Sexual Exploitation of Children in South Africa that definitions of child sexual exploitation in national legislation, are often too broad and can result in cases not being prosecuted or lost.

“Like somebody said; the definition ‘it is as open and wide as God’s grace’. That is why we have so many knowledge deficits,”

— research participant, Gauteng. 

Child marriage

Child marriage has been established as both a channel to, and a form of sexual exploitation of children. For example, through enabling the sexual availability of a child, shielding sexual violence within the union, or creating impossible power dynamics for the child to exercise autonomy.

South Africa received a score of 50/100 in the Out of the Shadows indicator for child marriage. This can be attributed to the fact that South African legislation still allows for the practice to occur.

Indeed, inconsistencies and loopholes exist through the Children’s Act 38 of 2005, the Marriage Act 25 of 1961 and the Recognition of Customary Marriage Act 120 of 1998, which allow marriage before the age of 18 years under different circumstances.

An exception can be granted by the Minister or any authorized officer for young children to marry.

Remarkably, according to the Marriage Act 25 of 1961, the minimum legal age for marriage in South Africa remains 18 years old for boys and 15 years old for girls. Moreover, an exception can be granted by the Minister or any authorised officer for younger ages. Similarly, the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act 120 of 1998 although prescribing the marriageable age of boys and girls at 18 years and the need for spouses to consent to be married, provides for exceptions to the marriageable age.

the tribal custom of UKUTHWALA

A connected phenomenon is the tribal custom of Ukuthwala, or bride kidnapping. While in the past this was often condoned because it was mostly used ceremonially, Ukuthwala is now seriously considered a risk factor for sexual exploitation because it increasingly involves the kidnapping, rape and forced marriage of underage girls.

Ukuthwala increasingly involves the kidnapping, rape and forced marriage of underage girls. 

As confirmed by professionals, the practice of Ukuthwala is a form of child trafficking and therefore penalized under the PACOTIP. Despite a draft bill prohibiting forced marriages and child marriages has been in circulation since 2015, as of October 2019 no legislative reform on this issue has yet occurred.

the way forward

  • South Africa adopts the Cybercrimes Bill and amends legislation on child sexual abuse material accordingly
  • South Africa harmonises relevant laws to set the minimum age of marriage at 18 years old for boys and girls with no exceptions

Government commitment and capacity (47/100)

Although South Africa does not have a national plan of action specifically addressing the sexual exploitation of children, a number of policies and frameworks, which partially address the issue, have been developed. However, professionals report that there is weak monitoring, and substantial issues with practical implementation, coordination and cooperation between government departments who have responsibilities.

“We have enough [policies and legislation], if we can’t even meet the requirements of what we have available, what will be the point of developing more policies and legislation?”

— research participant, KwaZulu-Natal. 

National plans, policies and institutions

South Africa has adopted four national planning documents to implement its policy for the protection of children.

  1. The National Plan of Action for Children 2012-2017 promoted the rights of children and their protection. It is understood that revision and development of a new plan is currently underway.
  2. In 2017, the Government adopted and published Phase IV (2017-2021) of the Child Labour Programme of Action for South Africa, which gathers policies related to the prevention and elimination of child labour.
  3. The National Policy Framework on Trafficking in Persons, drafted in 2009 and revised in late 2018, is awaiting final approval by the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development.
  4. In 2012, the first draft of the National Policy Framework on the Management of Sexual Offences was published, as required by the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences Related Matters) Act.
There is almost no information about the implementation, effectiveness and monitoring of these plans and policies available.

Very little public information and data could be found regarding the implementation, effectiveness and monitoring of these plans and policies. This partially explains the score of 40/100 for the national plans and policies Index indicator.


The Government has undertaken a number of positive preventive measures and awareness activities to address the sexual exploitation of children, in particular through trafficking and online. An example is the establishment of a Cybercrime Unit of the South African Police Service’s Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences Investigations, formed to tackle cases of cybercrime such as crimes related to online child sexual exploitation. In addition, trafficking of children is addressed by the South African Police Service’s Human Trafficking Desk which monitors and evaluates police efforts to investigate human trafficking crimes and to train investigators.

In 2016, in response to South Africa’s periodic report, the Committee on the Rights of the Child recommended that South Africa provide more training on child sexual exploitation to police officers placed in relevant units. However, sector professionals emphasised this was still a largely unaddressed, and pressing need.

Training police officers on how sexual exploitation impacts the child is urgently needed.

They noted a particular need for training to improve police investigation practices to avoid exposing children to secondary trauma. Limited training for officers is illustrated by the 0/100 score attributed to South Africa for the Index indicator related to the availability of guidelines and information supporting law enforcement in dealing with cases of child sexual exploitation and abuse.

the way forward

  • South Africa develops a National Action Plan specifically focusing on the sexual exploitation of children, or updates and monitors implementation of other relevant National Action Plans
  • South Africa increases funding to the Cybercrime Unit and the Human Trafficking Desk of the South African Police Service
  • Training for all police on child sexual exploitation is developed and funded and delivered via specialist units to spread knowledge on the issue across the force

Engagement of industry, civil society and media (63/100)

The efforts of South African civil society in preventing, raising awareness and providing support to young people on sexual exploitation are praiseworthy. Similarly, the commitment of some companies in the technology and travel and tourism sectors is creditable, but further efforts are needed, as explained below. However, welfare workers note big funding shortfalls, burnout of workers providing services and limited opportunities for facilitating opportunities for multi-sectoral teams and referral networks. A score of 0/100 indicates very limited positive action from the media industry.

In travel and tourism , South Africa scored 100/100 for the two indicators related to commitment to the Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation in Travel and Tourism; a global initiative which trains workers in the tourism industry to recognise and respond to sexual abuse and exploitation of children. As of October 2019, 33 companies based and/or operating in South Africa were member of The Code. However, in terms of its response to sexual exploitation and abuse of children, the South African travel and tourism sector scored 0/100, due to an overall omission to include these issues as clear priorities in their work, annual reports and organisational codes of conduct. Although tourism is an essential part of South Africa’s economic development, with over 5.8 million tourists visiting the country between January and July 2019, without vigilance, tourism operations can result in higher risk of child sexual exploitation as tourists come with discretionary spending in sometimes unregulated forms of accommodation and transportation.

Professional law enforcement and welfare workers highlighted the role that the traditional and social media could potentially play in increasing awareness and knowledge on the sexual exploitation of children amongst the wider public. This also includes ethical reporting of cases and use of correct and appropriate terminology.

the way forward

  • South Africa government provides funding opportunities for civil society organisations that enable multi-sectoral collaboration, professional development training and support for frontline workers 
  • South African government implements a long-term regulatory strategy to engage the travel and tourism sector in prevention and protection measures
  • Media and social media companies operating in South Africa adopt ethical practices and terminology guidelines for reporting on child sexual exploitation into their codes of conduct

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