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Extract | She is safe


From the brothels of Cape Town, South Africa, and the streets of Maputo, Mozambique, to the tourist markets in Kathmandu, Nepal, and the red-light district of Pattaya, Thailand, I have observed, studied and/or investigated the inextricable link between systems of prostitution and sex trafficking for over two decades. During this time, I have had the immense pleasure and privilege to meet and work with several law enforcement officers, social workers, prosecutors and service providers.

As a beacon of light, Emma van der Walt stands tall among many of these giants and knows all too well that South Africa has a human trafficking problem. Available evidence convincingly shows that victims and perpetrators are significantly undercounted and that sex trafficking continues to make up the overwhelming majority of detected, reported and prosecuted cases in South Africa. Several factors fuel the problem. This includes South Africa’s unremitting structural inequalities, unconstrained demand by men who seek to purchase sexual access to the bodies of women and children, indifference and several crippling response deficiencies. Border insecurity, law enforcement corruption as a driver of human trafficking and the seeming impunity of domestic and international trafficking gangs contribute to this tangled web.

This is the perilous arena in which Emma shows up, and by keeping her eyes on the Cross, she steers where she stares.

While South Africa’s notoriety as a source, transit and destination country for human trafficking may be well documented by researchers, journalists and stenographers who record the harrowing testimonies of witnesses and victims in our courts, one critical perspective is sorely lacking: Emma’s boots-on-the-ground vantage point, and her story of divine courage in the face of danger and tragedy.

She is Safe is a testament to how Emma embraces life. Her story is one of sincerity and selfless service, and a source of hope and inspiration for all who leaf through its pages. In a country plagued by indifference and multilayered structural inequalities, we are fortunate to encounter people like Emma, whose certitude brings life-changing interventions for many who are rendered invisible by one of the most visible marketplaces there is – the sex trade. Emma’s experiences and the voices of survivors so thoughtfully captured in her writing show how not only traffickers but also sex buyers prey on the acute vulnerabilities of those trapped in these violent systems.

She is Safe is timely because it appears at a time when the South African government is considering the full decriminalisation of South Africa’s sex trade and removing all laws criminalising sex buying, pimping and brothel-keeping. Emma’s experience tells us exactly why this is a bad idea and provides a template for a different way. She is Safe is a tribute to the countless untold stories and hidden transcripts of courage that permeate our South African village and remind us that love, mercy and compassion always eclipse fear.

May the courage displayed in these pages ignite a flame in every reader – a visceral stirring that compels us to embrace collective compassion, actively participate in the co-creation of off-ramps out of the sex trade and a deep conviction that our fight for the rights of women and girls not to be trapped in prostitution is a fight for freedom, dignity and human flourishing.


Former Hawks Sex Trafficking Investigator,
Research Fellow: Free State Centre for Human Rights,
University of the Free State


On 23 September 2018, God spoke to me, saying, “Emma, what I am about to do, you will not take the glory for.” This journey of freedom for victims of sex slavery has, therefore, only been possible because of God’s presence leading the way for us. God will be glorified for every life that received freedom and every daughter who was rescued and brought back home. There are, however, many daughters and sons of God still enslaved out there, and we will continue to fight for them, obeying God’s voice and leading the journey. God has heard their cries and prayers, and we will obey his call to put an end to slavery. I pray that the reality of what you read here will help shape your perspective and move you to action to heal our nation and the lives of those who have been victims.



Chapter 1

Intervention from God

Her little eyes, peeking from behind the living room wall, watch us closely. She is probably wondering who these strangers visiting her house are. They look different to the people she knows in her community. She is only five years old, speaks Luganda and only knows a few words of English. This was the first time I had visited another country in Africa. I had to overcome incredible hurdles to get to Uganda, but I knew God had spoken clearly to me to come. I smiled at Sarah, the little girl peering around the corner, while we sat in the lounge talking about the programme for the week. We were staying with locals who had been generous enough to open their homes to us. I started playing peek-a-boo with Sarah, laughing and smiling, and more and more, she started trusting and exploring these guests visiting her home. As the fun continued, the games progressed to us imitating the sounds of roaring lions, followed by outbursts of laughter as we competed to see who could mimic the best roar.

Africa is a beautiful place – as are the people. The continent is, however, also trapped in poverty, which makes her children, teenage girls and women especially vulnerable to stepping into the snare of criminals and traffickers. We were visiting the villages and other rural areas. I have a bad habit of buying bright-coloured shoes and was wearing a pair that day. While we were walking on the dirt road between the houses, one of my good friends said to me, “Emma, God is going to always provide a shoe allowance for you.” I was caught a little off guard. Why would he say that to me? I like colourful shoes but certainly don’t spend much money on them. My favourite is a red pair of high-top Converse sneakers. He went on to tell me that God wants me to obey and follow Him as I walk and go to places. He handed me a scripture, not realising that in just a few years after this moment, my life would undergo a radical change as I obeyed God’s voice.

Isaiah 52:7 “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation …”

I love watching people communicate with each other, analysing their body language and their drive to be understood in a conversation. I enjoy understanding people’s behaviour – what motivates them to behave as they do. I have learnt that there is a deep need in humanity for love and acceptance. I have also discovered that humankind has a corrupt nature and needs a saviour. I have discovered the power of choice and free will, how the will of humankind can lead either to destruction of self and others, or, when a decision is made, can bring hope and healing. I have come face to face with moments in my life when my choices could have been either for my own benefit and pleasure or for the laying down of my life to help those in need. This may sound like an honourable declaration of denial of self, but the internal and external battle is not something readily understood if we choose to sacrifice our lives to rescue others. We live in a hedonistic society that strives to fulfil the pleasures of self and satisfy our selfish nature instead of choosing to uplift the community and the most vulnerable and broken in society. I have been confronted twice in my life by moments when I could have chosen a career that would benefit me or to obey God and answer the call He placed on my life.

It was Mother’s Day. I was standing next to my mother and father in church. My mother is a strong Dutch woman who was born in Utrecht, Netherlands. Dutch people tend to be quite direct and have a strong inclination to fight for justice. My grandmother and grandfather were in the Netherlands during the Second World War, and both proved to be true heroes. They were awarded the highest Certificate of Honour from the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial for saving Jewish lives during the war. My grandparents ran a place of safety for Jewish children during the war. Sonja, the daughter of a rabbi, was the first little girl to be placed with them. After Sonja, there were Abe and two others: a 14-year-old boy and a 16-year-old girl. They were brought there by students who would later fetch them again to take them to outlying farming areas.

Later, a young boy named Rob was brought to the house. He was the same age as my aunt, Nel, and his presence in the community was explained by telling people that Rob and Nel were twins. The thus went to school together, and in this way, they were able to protect his identity. He called my grandparents Mom and Dad. My grandparents loved children, and as a young family during the war, they risked their lives to offer a safe house for those traumatised by war. I am always moved when I think about my grandparents and how brave they were. They could have decided not to get involved in the plight of these children, but instead, they showed sympathy and became a place of safety for Jewish children.

As a little girl, I remember my grandmother telling us stories about the war, of how she bravely crossed the border on a bicycle, looking for food and escaping the hands of German soldiers who wanted to rape and abuse her and confiscate the food she had collected. My grandfather struggled with rheumatism and the cold in the Netherlands caused him to be bedridden. The options for them as a family were to either immigrate to Australia, Egypt or South Africa. They were a family of faith, and I believe God was involved in their decision to come to South Africa.

I gave my heart to the Lord when I was four years old, so I have always had this awareness of God in my life. I knew that God had a specific plan for my life in South Africa and Africa in general, and that I had to continue the call God had made on my grandparents’ lives by bringing safety to the most vulnerable. I always had a strong sense that God wanted me to be in South Africa. My father is South African and a creative entrepreneur who has inspired me greatly. The day God called me, I knew that I would get uncomfortable with where I was. By that time, I had been faithfully serving as a pastor in the church for a while. I loved the people and enjoyed the ministry. The ministry was in a good place, growing well, and I had the privilege of serving with my husband. I have always had a deep love for God. Hearing the voice of God was like oxygen for my soul; I pursued it desperately every day and desired for the Holy Spirit to take the lead in my life. Life was good, I had a purpose, and I was following God.

Standing in church that Sunday morning in May while the worship music played, I heard the voice of God speak clearly to me. The tears were streaming down my face. I felt peaceful and content but was moved to the deepest core of my being. I heard the Father ask me, “Emma, will you sacrifice your ministry and lay it all on the altar and follow me?”

Just as Abraham was asked to offer Isaac, I was challenged by the request. But then I remembered Mary in the Bible when the angel appeared to her and asked whether she would be the mother of Jesus. She responded “Let it be unto me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). So, I responded to God and said yes; I would follow Him and trust Him as I followed. That August, our non-profit organisation Brave to Love was registered. As we started the transition, I knew that I would have to step out of my comfort zone and truly learn what it means to live by faith and trust in God (2 Corinthians 5:6–7).

While juggling ministry responsibilities, I always had a strong sense of urgency for the lost and bringing the Gospel of hope to people. I loved the outreach programmes, whether in our local suburbs or in Uganda. These outreaches led to a point where we started engaging with women involved in prostitution. I was leading teams to offer support and assistance to these women in our area. From a very young age, I have had a deep urgency in my heart for people who have not encountered Jesus. Jesus forgives sins and heals lives.

I will never forget the day I entered that first brothel. As I made my way through the double doors of the house in an upper-class area, I saw a beautiful, thin woman with lovely golden-brown skin. She seemed to be around the same age as me. She had long hair extensions and sharp, fine facial features with a perfect nose. She swung around the counter, greeting us with such friendliness and love. She was chirpy and extroverted, with a warm personality. We asked whether we could speak to her and some of the other women, give them gifts and invite them to our pamper-party beauty event the following week. She guided us through the house, and we met all the ladies on the patio. There were many of them, more than 20, all in short skirts and other colourful clothing, with lots of make-up and long lash extensions. The ladies were all so friendly and happy to speak to us. Some were smoking cannabis, and there was smoke everywhere, so I am sure I must have breathed in some fumes. Some of the ladies struggled to make eye contact, and I wondered whether they felt ashamed about selling their bodies. By the time I got back into the car, the adrenalin was pumping through my body and I was giggling – I am not sure whether that was because of the secondary cannabis fumes or because I was so happy that Jesus had led me into my first brothel.

We continued with outreaches to the women involved in prostitution, sharing love and offering friendship, emotional support, spiritual support and Jesus. I had many talks with the ladies, building friendships and listening to their stories. Not one of these women ever said they wanted to do this permanently or that they enjoyed it; it was only a temporary situation because they needed money. In many cases, this was their only way to survive in South Africa and a last resort as they continued to struggle to find employment.

I felt the love of God for the women I met, but my heart was concerned. I had looked so many of them in the eyes as they shared their ambitions and dreams with me. How could I tell them that I love them but do not have an exit plan for them, a way out of prostitution – the escape they desperately longed and asked for? It was easy for me because I was able to walk out of the brothel after giving her a gift, whereas she had to return to serving sex buyers with whatever sexual fantasies they had. Brave to Love was thus started to help provide further support for women involved in prostitution, offering skills development and education.

So, I started following God’s voice to walk into areas and locations that might not be comfortable for others. I remember praying for South Africa. My thoughts were centred around understanding how God must feel about our nation. I knew I would have to step out of my comfort zone, and that gave me an urgency and hunger in my heart to hear God speak more clearly and to follow his voice. I prayed that morning, “God, I want You to give me your burden for the people and for South Africa.” Standing in prayer, I felt the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit as tears rolled down my face, and I wept as I had never wept before. God showed me a part of his heart of justice that morning. I had a vision of all those small communities and townships in South Africa, and I saw young, underaged girls being raped and sexually abused. I cried and cried – as I still cry whenever I think back on that encounter. I prayed, “Jesus, please help; please use me to do what I can to fight the injustice of what happens to a young girl being raped, pimped out and sexually exploited.”

There were two important impressions that God revealed to me. These words prepared me for the journey ahead, giving me clear direction. I was walking, and I clearly heard the voice of God saying, “Emma, I am a God of justice.” The words were so clear that it felt as if they were being imprinted on my entire being. I believe that justice is the expression of empathy and compassion for another human being. Moved with compassion and love towards others, our aim is to end the injustice and cruelty occurring around us – the injustices of sex slavery, rape and sexual assault. How does a mother force her teenage daughter to have sex with older men for money? How do we stop this? How do we end the injustice of a man forcing himself on a young girl, tearing off her underwear and taking her virginity as if it is his right to do so? All the fury and passion in my being rose when a 15-year-old girl was gangraped at school by a group of older boys in an area close to where we live/work. The result was that she dropped out of school, got hooked on drugs and ended up being trafficked into prostitution. We have to allow ourselves to feel the pain so that it moves us to fight against injustice. God hates sex slavery, He hates rape, He hates sexual abuse and He hates it when a child’s bed is used for sexual abuse and not for sleep.

Once you see, you can never unsee. The pain in the eyes of the ladies I have met is burnt into my soul, but I have also seen their joy, their healing and their freedom. There are countless women and girls in brothels in South Africa, and I have looked into their eyes and I have heard their cries.

The final words God spoke to me as I embarked on this brave journey was a clear command. He said, “Emma, go and fetch my daughters!” So, I knew that I had to go and find the women and girls who are being kept as sex slaves and bring them home to God. They need to be freed from physical, emotional and psychological bondage, and I have to help them heal the vulnerabilities that got them into prostitution. We have to bring every one of God’s daughters home so that “She can be safe”.

About the author

Emma van der Walt is the founder of a counter-sex trafficking organisation based in South Africa. She has dedicated her life to rescuing and rehabilitating survivors of sex trafficking. At a young age she yielded her life to Jesus while she grew in an understanding that the challenging task of fighting human trafficking would be impossible without God’s direct guidance.

Through her training and faithful involvement in the church, she was ordained as a pastor at the age of 25, working alongside her husband. After the birth of their third child, she had a radical encounter with God that changed her career from full-time ministering in the church to ministering on the streets, where women involved in prostitution were to be found. She then left the pastorate to dedicate all her time and energy to reaching out to women trapped in the sex industry and developing exit strategies and restoration programmes.

Emma established a non-profit organisation, Brave to Love, that ventures into the dark world of sex trafficking, strip clubs and brothels. She reaches out to the women in these dark places, mobilising volunteers to join her in bringing hope and love to those who are trapped. Emma also works with law enforcement agencies, gathering intelligence, rescuing women and bringing them to safe havens that lead them on a path to freedom and restoration. She is guided by her strong, fearless character to establish justice for the victims of the sex trafficking industry. Her life serves as a testimony that invites others to contribute their resources and join the battle against this dehumanising industry called sex trafficking. She inspires others through her selfless love and persistent dedication to the enormous call that God has entrusted to her.