South Africa

Sex Workers vs Police: Report lists brutal beatings, rape and being ‘dropped off far from home’

By Nkateko Mabasa 23 March 2018

In a country beset with high levels of poverty and unemployment, women with dependants are forced to turn to sex work. Their encounters with the police, a new report shows, draw a grim picture of how sex workers live and survive in the shadows of society. By NKATEKO MABASA.

Last week, the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in partnership with Sonke Gender Justice and the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Task force (Sweat) published a report on the Policing of Sex Workers in South Africa.

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The aim of the research report was to study what human rights challenges these “marginalised and stigmatised groups in society” – sex workers – face during “policing and security operations”.

The study focused on the experiences of sex workers from a “grass roots perspective”, to showcase the “human rights violations” that happen to them as well as the challenges that advocates for sex work face when engaging the police to “address these violations”.

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Conducted between February 2016 and May 2017, in Gauteng and Mpumalanga, 120 sex workers participated in the survey. A total of 63 participants gave interviews, while 57 completed a survey questionnaire. Participants included those who worked for escort agencies, in taverns, informal brothels and on the street.

According to the study’s findings, 74% of the participants reported having a problem with the police and made efforts to avoid them, while 64% have been arrested an average of four times. The report also shows how 53.12% of those arrested had to pay a fine, while 31.2% of those arrested were not charged, were not fined and did not appear in court.

Out of the 120 participants, 24% reported having been physically assaulted while 33% said they had been sexually assaulted (raped).

Another 44% reported that they were dropped off somewhere else after their arrest and had to figure out where they were and how to get back home.

Donna Evans, Principal Researcher and Policy and Advocacy Unit at Sonke Gender Justice, said brutal beatings inflicted on sex workers at the hands of the police often left them seeking emergency medical treatment.

In South Africa, sex work is illegal and a criminal offence in terms of the Sex Offences Act 1957 and the Criminal (sexual offences and related matters) Amendment Act 2007.

However, “there are 182,000 (female, male and transgender) adult sex workers in South Africa, who use sex work as a livelihood”, according to the report.

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A large majority of the study’s participants reported having on average of about four people who were dependent on them. A 65-year-old woman reported having 21 dependants who looked to her for survival.

The report found that police officers abuse their authority in policing sex workers.

The job of the police is not to punish, that’s the job of the courts,” said Evans.

The study further found that the manner of policing which sees officers confiscating and even burning condoms supplied by health organisations places sex workers’ safety at increased risk of HIV infections.

At increased risk are undocumented migrants who are sex workers as their legal status is often used as a tool to extort money or sex from them.

I was terrified in the cell and needed to get out. I agreed to have sex with the police officer. He did not use a condom,” a participant told researchers.

Mbuyiselo Botha from the Commission of Gender Equality credits the stigma against sex work that results in the way the police treat them.

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Because of religion and traditional conservative beliefs, according to Botha, people assume there is something inherently wrong with this person and this creates an environment for a police officer to violate the rights of sex workers.

This type of thinking creates a fertile ground for non-action and impunity,” he said.

Nosipho Vidima, a sex work advocate with Sweat, stressed that the objective of the report is not to decriminalise sex work but to shine a light on the crimes inflicted on sex workers.

We are not saying agree that sex work is (real) work. We are not saying agree on the decriminalisation of sex work. We are saying look at a human being as a human being and afford them the rights and justice they deserve in the country,” Vidima said.

Although decriminalisation of sex work would be ideal, the report notes that a more pressing issue is the abuse, assault and harassment that sex workers experience, which despite complaints being laid saw very little action being taken against perpetrators.

In place of decriminalisation of sex work, activists believe that a framework and standard operating procedures for the national policing of sex work should be designed and set up to ensure human rights protection for people whose work is illegal.

This could be done, according to the report, by “engagements between SAPS, government, sex workers and sex work organisations on an agreed and human way forward to the issue”.

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To achieve this goal, proper documentation of the violations that sex workers encounter on a day to day basis while doing to their work will go a long way to expose the extent and nature of the challenge.

Colonel Onica Tlhoaele, who is involved in the police service’s Employee Wellness Programme, said police officers were an extension of a broader society.

You don’t lose your identity simply because you are clothed in a blue uniform,” said Tlhoaele, arguing that police officers are an extension of the communities they come from. They learn their prejudices from families.

Tlhoaele admitted that there were challenges but the service had embarked on “initiatives within the organisation” to address those. DM

Photo: Flickr, Thomas Hawk

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