Sex workers decry police abuse and call for decriminalisation of their work  

Members of the SWEAT theatre group performing during the launch of the report on Friday. Photo by Chris Gilili

Sex workers remain vulnerable to abuse and when police are so often the perpetrators, they have little to no protection from the law.

On Friday, several concerned organisations gathered in Rosebank to launch a damning report about the abuse of sex workers and presented evidence of the human rights violations they suffer. 

Leeroy Gumpo, from the Southern African Sex Workers Alliance (Saswa), said there are still many challanges that sex workers face in the SADC region. “Sex workers are human as well; they are mothers, sisters, and professionals we don’t even think about. Whenever sex workers are raped, whenever sex workers are beaten, we need justice for that, regardless of what policies say,” said Gumpo. 

Nomsa Nkabinde, who hails from KwaZulu-Natal, has been a sex worker in Johannesburg for the past ten years. She told Elitsha that she has been abused several times by police officials while working: “One officer came to me like a client who wanted to buy; he slept with me, afterwards he beat me up, threatened me and refused to give me money.” She has also been raped by a police official, after being arrested in Hillbrow while talking to a potential client. 

Aquilla Gantsho, a sex worker from Gugulethu in the Western Cape said, “We are excited at the possibility of decriminalisation of sex work. I have been raped and have been sexually harassed by law enforcement officials, who were supposed to protect me. “I know violence first-hand from clients and community members. We need decriminalisation, so that we can report these cases without fear and also fight stigmatisation. We are working and not meaning to harm anyone.” Police have attacked her and taken personal belongings, Gantsho said, including condoms that she uses for protection. 

The publication of the report, entitled, “Equal Rights, Human Rights: Protecting the rights of sex workers: Evidence on Human Rights Violations“, is taking place against the backdrop of Minister of Justice and Correctional Services Ronald Lamola having announced on Friday the release for public comment of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Bill of 2022, which would decriminalise sex work. Lamola said decriminalising sex work would help t, de-stigmatise sex work and enable access to basic services and protection by law enforcement agencies.”

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While the majority of sex workers (73.4%) reporting their personal violation are female, the report notes worrying trends in other demographics. “[Y]outh below the age of 25 [are] becoming active in sex work and experiencing violence (30.9%). An equally unsettling development this year is the increase in violations reported by male (12.3%) and transgender sex workers (13.4%). Numbers amongst both gender groups more than doubled compared to last year,” the report notes. 

Physical violation, and stigma and discrimination continue being the two leading forms of violations reported by sex workers at 25% and 18% respectively. “Sex workers also report violations such as illegal abortion, being kidnapped, being involuntary drugged and belongings being destroyed, burnt or stolen,” says the report. 

After the event,  the report was handed over to the Deputy Minister for Social Development, Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu and a department of justice representative. 

Sisonke National Sex Workers Movement programme coordinator, Pamela Chakuvinga said the report presents data collected in four countries: South Africa, Mozambique, Botswana and Zimbabwe. “2,009 human rights violations against sex workers were recorded in these countries. Police officers were found to be the highest perpetrators of violence against sex workers; the other perpetrators are the clients themselves,” said Chikuvinga. She said there is an urgent need to push for decriminalisation of sex work, so that they can also be protected by law.

Julia Vilanculos, from a civil society organisation fighting for sex worker rights in Mozambique said fourteen sex workers were recently killed in Sofala Province, Mozambique. Since these senseless killings, they have rallied and are working with police officers and law enforcement. “Sex work in Mozambique is neither legal or illegal. We are still navigating some of our issues. We have even developed a tool called “honour” to help sex workers to record any violence against them. We sensitise them to ensure they record cases and tell them which procedures to follow. Sex workers still face many challenges because we have no law or legislation which defends sex work,” said Vilanculos. 

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Katlego Rasebitse, the national organiser for Sisonke National Sex Workers Movement, said police should do better and assist with removing the stigma associated with sex work. Rasebitse said the organisation is fighting for the removal of criminal records, and working hard to empower their members to speak out and change the negative perceptions of them. 

 Sisonke co-founder, Kholi Buthelezi said they do not want the decriminalisation of sex work to be partial but a permanent thing. “Decriminalisation is about rights and protection of sex workers. The signing of the bill also as our report launches, gives us hope. There is a lot that has happened since we started Sisonke. 

We have given birth to many sex worker-led organisations around the region. The report is going to contribute to our calls for decriminalisation. Now we have proof and evidence of what we go through as sex workers,” said Buthelezi.

Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Tast Force (SWEAT) spokesperson, Megan Lessing said decriminalising sex work is a moral thing to do, because sex workers are being stigmatised and often suffer physical violence under the law. “We underestimate the impact of stigma… It impacts our access to justice and health. It impacts the way I am viewed and my standing in this community,” said Lessing. 

She also added that at SWEAT, they also have a 24-hour hotline that sex workers can use to report any abuse they suffer, immediately. 

Other organisations attending the launch of the report were Khusela, North Star Alliance, Botswana Network on Ethics, Law and HIV/AIDS (Bonela) and Zimbabwe Sex Workers Alliance (Zimswa). 

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About Chris Gilili 50 Articles
Chris Gilili, a 23 year old freelance journalist based in East London. Graduated from Walter Sisulu University media studies school in 2015. Had a stint with Independent Media, in sports writing. Passionate about news and the media.