Back to Africa Check

FACT-CHECKED: 2 claims about slavery & 'child prostitutes’ in SA

This article is more than 6 years old

In mid-October 2017, a “Walk for Freedom” was organised in Cape Town, South Africa, by international anti-slavery organisation A21.

Close to 1,000 people joined the march to “abolish slavery”, according to news and opinion website The Daily Vox.

Similar events were held in several cities around the world, including Sydney in Australia and Abuja in Nigeria.

During the walk, Rene Hanekom, the South African National Human Trafficking Resource Line’s resource line manager, made two claims about the number of “modern slaves” and “child prostitutes” in South Africa.

This report tests them against the best available evidence.


“There are… a quarter million [people in slavery] in South Africa alone."



When Africa Check asked Hanekom for the source of her claim, she referred us to the Global Slavery Index.

This index is published every year by the Walk Free Foundation, an international organisation that advocates for the end of modern slavery. It aims to provide a measure of modern slavery in 167 countries, according to the organisation’s website.

The organisation defines “modern slavery” as a situation where “where one person has taken away another person’s that they can be exploited”. The organisation considers “human trafficking, slavery and slavery-like practices such as servitude, forced labour, forced or servile marriage, the sale and exploitation of children, and debt bondage” to fall into this category.  

Survey methodology unclear

According to the index, 248,700 people in South Africa lived in modern slavery in 2016. Of these, the organisation states that “10,600 women are victims of forced marriage” and “more than 200,000 workers are subject to forced labour”.  

Africa Check asked the organisation how it determined the number of modern slaves in the country. This included questions on the sample size of the survey, how the sample was selected and what questions were asked to determine if people were victims of modern slavery.

At the time of publishing the organisation had not responded. (Note: We will update this report when we receive a response.)

‘Tremendously difficult’ exercise

Head of political studies at the University of Witwatersrand, Prof Joel Quirk, warned that “it is tremendously difficult to effectively generate credible estimates” for slavery.

According to Quirk, who has research interests in slavery and trafficking, the first challenge to estimating slavery is “associated with data collection, and in particular the logistical difficulties involved in establishing a credible sampling frame across large populations”.     

“The second challenge relates to questions of conceptual classification. Over the last decade there has been an increasing tendency [to] throw together the three allied concepts of modern slavery, human trafficking and forced labour together as if they were essentially interchangeable and equivalent,” he said.

“In addition, the latest global estimates include forced marriage as a specific form of slavery, which is a controversial inclusion.”

Until the Global Slavery Index provides more information on how its estimates were calculated, this claim remains unproven.


“There are over 10,000 children working as prostitutes in Johannesburg at the moment."



The statistic has been cited numerous times in recent years, including by News24, the UK Metro and New Age.

Hanekom told Africa Check that she sourced it from research conducted by the children’s rights organisation Molo Songololo in 2000.

The Molo Songololo report explicitly states “there are no official statistics of children in prostitution” in South Africa.

However, it goes on to say that “social workers and officers of the Child Protection Unit (CPU) estimate that there are 28,000 child prostitutes in South Africa”.

The report does not make any mention of 10,000 children “child prostitutes” in Johannesburg.

‘Based largely on anecdotal evidence’

In addition to being dated, the accuracy of the statistics cited in the report has been questioned by researchers, including senior research fellow at the Institute for Security Studies, Chandré Gould.

Gould, in collaboration with the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT), wrote in a 2008 book that the intention of the Molo Songololo report was to “raise awareness about the need for law enforcement and policy intervention rather than to provide a clear understanding of the scale of the problem”.

Gould said that the numbers cited in the report were “almost certainly inflated”.  

“Such overestimations, while successful in capturing public attention and generating moral outrage, do not provide a sound basis for policy-making and resource allocation.”

Postdoctoral fellow at the African Centre for Migration and Society, Rebecca Walker, told Africa Check there is “no evidence of thousands of children working as ‘prostitutes’ [in South Africa]".

Hanekom’s statement was rather based on “very common myths about children and sex work”, Walker said.

Limited research on topic

There has been very little research into the extent of “child prostitution” in South Africa. This may be why myths and unsubstantiated numbers gain traction so easily.  

One of the only studies into “child prostitution” was conducted by Gould and SWEAT over a 16-month period in Cape Town. They found little evidence of children in the sex trade.

The researchers did not find any children in brothels. They did, however, encounter 5 children selling sex on the street.

“None were being forced by an adult to do so, but they were rather forced by circumstances, including dysfunctional families and poverty,” the book notes.

Walker cautioned that young children involved in the sex trade are not sex workers but rather victims of sexual abuse and rape.

Prof Francois Venter, the deputy executive director of the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute, has worked with sex workers for over 15 years in Hillbrow, Johannesburg.

Venter was also the lead researcher of the South African Health Monitoring Survey with Female Sex Workers, which was conducted in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban between 2013 and 2014.

The survey was meant to include 16 and 17-year-old sex workers, but very few were recruited and thus “this age group was underrepresented”.  

Researchers warned that their “findings should not be interpreted to conclude that this age group is neither heavily involved in sex work, nor that it has no distinct needs of its own”.

Among adult sex workers, the survey found that “at least 1 in 10… entered the sex industry prior to the age of 18”.

Ethical considerations

The reason for the limited research is because of ethical considerations, it is very difficult to conduct research involving people younger than 18, SWEAT director Sally Shackleton told Africa Check.

“In the [SAHMS] study above, the research was able to include people 16 and over because they were considered in legal terms, to be emancipated,” Shackleton said.

“Children under 18 otherwise can’t consent to participating in research, and therefore you need their guardians to consent.”

Sex workers who took part in the SAHMS survey had to be 16 years and older, but the survey does not provide data on how many participants were younger than 18.

“[However] they estimated that one-third of female sex workers are between 16 and 24 years old. So, most sex workers are over 24 years old,” Shackleton said.  

In a 2013 survey SWEAT found that 34 of the 1,116 sex workers interviewed (3%) were younger than 18. The majority of the sex workers (63%) surveyed were older than 25.  

“We did find that male sex workers were more likely to be young than female sex workers – with 13% being under 18 and 43% over 25. We conclude that this is due to young gay and trans youth leaving home because their sexual orientation and gender identity not being accepted,” she said.

No evidence to support claim

“[To] the best of my knowledge and in light of the growing body of research in South Africa that engages with the complexities of sex work, this claim is not accurate,” the African Centre for Migration and Society’s Walker told Africa Check.

The claim that there are 10,000 children in sex work in Johannesburg is absurd and “should be taken with a pinch of salt”, said Venter.

“Not to say that trafficking and exploitation doesn’t happen – but reports like this do nothing to help sex workers or people being trafficked,” he said.


Additional reading:

Republish our content for free

We believe that everyone needs the facts.

You can republish the text of this article free of charge, both online and in print. However, we ask that you pay attention to these simple guidelines. In a nutshell:

1. Do not include images, as in most cases we do not own the copyright.

2. Please do not edit the article.

3. Make sure you credit "Africa Check" in the byline and don't forget to mention that the article was originally published on

Add new comment

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.
limit: 600 characters

Want to keep reading our fact-checks?

We will never charge you for verified, reliable information. Help us keep it that way by supporting our work.

Become a newsletter subscriber

Support independent fact-checking in Africa.