How Prostitutes Can Use Their Business Skills Outside of the Sex Trade

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Written by, Cathy Huyghe

Sales. Marketing. And a certain flair for performance.

These aren’t necessarily the first words that come to mind when you think about the skills of a prostitute. Yet it is those skills exactly that are helping women transition out of lives of prostitution and sex trafficking.

Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge noticed this transfer of skill sets from one business to another during her work with former prostitutes at Embrace Dignity, the organization she founded in Cape Town, South Africa. Embrace Dignity offers self-empowerment services for survivors of the sex trade, and they lobby for the effective implementation of existing legislation that prevents violence, protects women, and provides services for the victims of violence.

The Embrace Dignity team helps survivors find an alternative source of income, though the barriers to success are high. Often the women are without professional training or key life skills, having dropped out of school early. In addition, South Africa’s economy isn’t growing fast enough to support even those people with advanced degrees. Some estimates indicate that nearly half of South Africa’s population between the ages of 15 and 35 are unemployed and not at school.

Survivors, then, rely on skills they honed on the street and they learn new professional and life skills. Embrace Dignity organizes Sister Circles, for small groups of women to learn the life skills that they simply don’t have, and they work with local companies who provide specialized business skills. Survivors will apply those skills to new businesses that they often start themselves, since chances of employment in an already-existing company are slim.

Which brings us back to sales, marketing, and a flair for performance – three skills that render a prostitute’s trade successful, or not.

Madlala-Routledge noticed that one survivor she worked with was exceptionally good at selling and “closing the deal.” That survivor has built her own business of buying and selling products; since most of her customers purchase on credit, she’s succeeds because of her tenacity and follow through.

Another survivor recognized the value of marketing her appearance in order to attract clients as a prostitute. She is segwaying that experience – of presenting a beautiful persona through hair and makeup – into training at a chain of salons. She knows that she will need to move to a different part of the country in order to succeed: where she lives now, she’s known in a certain way that she needs to break away from.

Madlala-Routledge noticed that another survivor was especially good at acting and had a flair for the dramatic. She hopes to receive formal training in order to become a television presenter.

Sometimes a survivor’s new line of work is completely unrelated to her previous life, influenced in part by which industries need workers. Cape Town, for example, is home to a thriving and trendy pop up restaurant scene. A survivor learned culinary skills through Embrace Dignity, and she also learned life management skills that help her in a hospitality job, like discipline, preparation, and showing up for work on time.

Formal training, in culinary skills or television presentation, is one way to prepare for a new profession, but it’s expensive. That’s why Madlala-Routledge and Embrace Dignity partners with philanthropic organizations like Donor Direct Action (DDA), which offer a different and more straightforward route to funding than traditional resources like the United Nations.

“Grants at the UN should be easy for women to access,” Madlala-Routledge said. “But first you have to be highly literate, you have to be able to access the internet in order to fill in the application, and they’ll want several documents on which they’ll assess you. Then you wait, they’ll ask for more documents, and it could go on for months and months on end. And they may not even approve your application.” New, more agile organizations like DDA help to cut through the red tape, and Madlala-Routledge can often access funds within days.

Helping survivors, whether through education, skills training or microloans to start new businesses, has an enormous ripple effect. “When they came to us, they said they thought no one cared about them,” Madlala-Routledge said. “Now we see a change in women’s appearance, in how they walk and think about themselves. They’re helping their families, and they want to help prevent other girls from following the same pattern they did.

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