Stories of abuse could change the lives of sex workers

26 February 2018 - 08:34 By Nico Gous
About seven out of 10 sex workers were denied visits or the right to make a phone call. About six out of 10 sex workers reported being held in bad conditions‚ often receiving no food or water. File photo
About seven out of 10 sex workers were denied visits or the right to make a phone call. About six out of 10 sex workers reported being held in bad conditions‚ often receiving no food or water. File photo
Image: Anthony Moleneux

Her clothes were torn and she was pepper sprayed as police officers tried to push her into a van.

Another woman was beaten and a police officer tried to cut off her clothes. She sustained further injuries in the back of the police van. Her earrings and cellphones were stolen.

These disturbing stories of police abuse could end up inspiring change that will help thousands of South African sex workers. The two cases were reported to the gender commission in 2012. The commission subsequently launched an investigation into police abuse of sex workers. The report was released on Friday.

The Commission for Gender Equality (CGE) partly relied on a report by the Women’s Legal Centre (WLC).

“South Africa needs to shift from approaching sex work through the lens of criminalisation‚ towards treating sex work as a form of labour that is governed with the same rights and responsibilities as all other forms of work‚” the WLC found in 2016.

The CGE said on Friday that police officers should undergo sex work sensitivity training and stop using municipal by-laws to unlawfully arrest and detain sex workers. 

The South African National Aids Council (Sanac) estimates there are between 132‚000 and 182‚000 sex workers in South Africa.

The WLC found nearly all sex workers have been raped‚ robbed‚ asked to pay bribes and verbally or physically abused. It added that police officers commit these crimes with “impunity”.

“They remove their badges and name tags so that they cannot be reported to the authorities.”

The WLC found police officers target sex workers by chasing and photographing them to identify them later.

“Some reported being arrested while running everyday errands‚ because police officers know what they do for a living and target them.”

Sex workers were often detained without being charged and have to pay a fine or bribe for their release.

“They [are] also often forced to perform sexual acts on the corrupt policemen as a condition of release.”

About seven out of 10 sex workers were denied visits or the right to make a phone call. About six out of 10 sex workers reported being held in bad conditions‚ often receiving no food or water.

Some sex workers also reported that police officers confiscated their condoms and medication. Some said they feared carrying condoms in their hand bags in case the police search them and arrest them for having condoms on them.

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