22 August 2012
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
A Report On Human Rights Violations By Police Against Sex Workers In South Africa
At the National Sex Work Symposium: Best practices in HIV Prevention Care and Treatment for Sex Workers in South Africa, the Women’s Legal Centre (“WLC”), Sisonke and the Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (“SWEAT”) released a report which finds that police officers in South Africa are the main violators of sex workers’ human rights.
“Stop Harassing Us! Tackle Real Crime!: A report on Human Rights Violations By Police Against Sex Workers In South Africa” draws on the views and voices of more than 300 sex workers in Cape Town, Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban and Limpopo.
“The human rights abuses of sex workers in South Africa is alarming and demands immediate attention” says Stacey-Leigh Manoek, an attorney at the WLC and author of the report. This research shows that the existing legal framework is unacceptably liable to police discretion and encourages police corruption and abuse.
Sex workers said that when they are arrested by the police they are often assaulted, pepper sprayed, bribed and sexually assaulted. Almost 1 in 6 sex workers who approached WLC experienced physical or sexual assault by the police. A female sex worker from Cape Town said “The coloured police officer grabbed me, and my clothes came off. Then they pepper sprayed me in my mouth and beat me”.
Police abuse of sex workers in South Africa is systemic and widespread. Of the 308 sex workers interviewed for this study, 70 percent experienced some form of abuse at the hands of police. Many reported more than one violation. A sex worker from Johannesburg told us her story, “Then the policemen told me to go outside and stand in a line with the other women. When we got outside, one of the ladies said that we should run away from them. So we all started running. Then the policemen started shooting at us. They shot me twice with rubber bullets in my shoulder. But I kept running. I did not want to stop. Later I went to the clinic to bandage my wounds.”
Another sex worker in Cape Town recalled her sexual assault by the police, “A police officer unzipped his pants and put a condom on. I got a shock. They started speaking to me rudely. They told me that I must give each one of them a blow job (oral sex), which I did. He put me on the floor. The police officer raped me, then the second one, after that the third one did it again. I was crying after the three left without saying anything. Then the first one appeared again… He let me out by the back gate without my property. I was so scared that my family would find out.”
Police officers commit these crimes with impunity. They remove their name tags so that sex workers are unable to identify them and they instil such fear in the sex workers that they are afraid to report these crimes to the authorities. A sex worker in Cape Town said “One day I was standing on one of the corners, the police came and ask what I was doing there and who I am waiting for, then they put me in the van and told me that they are taking me to the police station, but instead they took me back off the street and wanted sexual favours, and both of them had no tame tags.”
138 sex workers reported being arrested, and only 21 appeared in court. Indicating that the pattern of arresting sex workers without the intention to prosecute is still prevalent. Manoek says that this practice “is a clear constitutional human rights violation of the right to defend oneself in court and not to be arbitrarily deprived of one’s freedom.” Almost half of those who had been arrested where held beyond the 48 hours maximum period permitted by law and 70 percent said that while they were in detention they had been denied access to food or water.
The report makes recommendations to the South African government to decriminalise sex work. It also calls on Chapter 9 institutions such as the Commission for Gender Equality to investigate the human rights abuses that sex workers experience. It also calls on civil society organisations to support the call for decriminalisation and to meaningfully include sex workers in their work.
SWEAT’s advocacy officer Ntokozo Yingwana says that “in order to address this human rights crisis and the human rights violations that sex workers experience, South Africa should decriminalise the selling and buying of sex and the system should be reformed to bring the treatment of sex workers in line with our constitutional and international obligations to reduce this type of abuse.”
“Sex work should be decriminalised now! The South African Law Reform commission has been sitting on this matter for the past ten years and they keep on postponing the time when they will release their report. This gives us the impression that this matter is of no importance to them. This democracy is failing us”, says Kholi Buthelezi, national coordinator Sisonke- the only sex worker led movement in South Africa.
Sisonke National Coordinator –
Kholi Buthelezi, tel: 073 247 9623, and email kholib at sweat.org.za
SWEAT Advocacy Officer –
Ntokozo Yingwana, tel: 072 389 1354, and email ntokozo.yingwana at sweat.org.za
Stacey-Leigh Manoek, tel: 0820755571 and email stacey-leigh at wlce.co.za / manoek.staceyleigh at gmail.com