Mbabane, Swaziland | 19 November 2014
“Prostitution may be the world’s oldest profession,” reported the Times of Swaziland last week, “but it is still an unacceptable trade in our society as discovered by nine ladies of the night who were arrested on Sunday.”
The women appeared before a judge and pleaded guilty to the charge of loitering.
They were sentenced to five months imprisonment or a fine of E500 (US$50).
Some of the women, said the report, were unable to pay the fine and are now behind bars as convicted criminals.
The others paid E500 and were set free.
It seems, therefore, that E500 — a monthly wage for many — is the price of freedom for the ‘loitering class’.
Or, E500 is the cost to avoid jail and therefore continue loitering in order to put food on the table until another undercover cop comes along with the false promise of a good time.
What struck me, more than the hefty fine and jail-time imposed on people who would probably prefer not to be selling their bodies to strangers, was the date of the legislation they were charged under.
The “women of the night” breached Section 49 of the Crimes Act of 1889 — loitering with the purpose of prostitution to the annoyance of the general public.
I wonder if the loitering gentlemen (from the general public) who purchased “the goods” would care to comment.
“Excuse me, Sir, is this lady you purchased causing you an annoyance?”
Coming back to 1889.
A quick Internet search shows the passing of Swaziland’s Crimes Act was not the only big occasion that year.
On January 10, 1889, Ivory Coast was declared a protectorate of France.
Five days later, January 15, 1889 — in an event more closely aligned to modern-day Swaziland — the Coca Cola Company, then known as the Pemberton Medicine Company, was incorporated in Atlanta, USA.
What is often glossed over in the sex worker debate, whether in “developed” or “developing” countries, is that prostitution thrives, not only because of poverty, but because men, many of whom are not poor or vulnerable, are willing to pay for the service.
It does not thrive because an army of relatively well-off women, of their own free will, decide to dress up in skimpy clothes and loiter in dark corners on cold nights.
Yes, there are two sides to this coin. And to prove my “gender credentials”, there are also women who buy sex — just to a much smaller and less dangerous, exploitative degree.
Moreover, research shows there are a few women who do take pride in their “escort work” and are rightly calling for a more regulated and safer environment in which to work.
The question, therefore, is how the law and/or regulations approaches the inevitable industry of prostitution.
Sweden, a democratic first world country known for its efficient use of public money on quality education and healthcare, passed a law criminalising the buying of sex but not the selling of it. Certainly changes one’s outlook.
Though Sweden’s law is not perfect and debate rightly rages on, it nevertheless aims to protect the more vulnerable person; while also reducing the devastating flow-on effects of prostitution such as people trafficking and slavery.
Perhaps the last word on legal matters might go to South African novelist Alan Paton, who, in Cry, the Beloved Country wrote: “The judge does not make the law. It is the people who make the law. Therefore if a law is unjust, and if the Judge judges according to the law, that is justice, even if it is not just.”
This column was originally published in the Times of Swaziland on 19 November 2014