A significant police backlash is being felt by sex workers around the country following human rights events for the International Sex Worker Rights Day on March 3rd.
In Johannesburg, Sisonke Sex Worker Movement national co-ordinator Kholi Buthelezi had her hands full with sex workers calling her for help “the day after the march in Johannesburg I went from Germiston back to the city taking statements from sex workers who were harassed or arrested”. 27 Sex workers were arrested and released with a R300 fine in Germiston while in the City sex workers were harassed and one was assaulted.
Ms Buthelezi witnessed a police reservist soliciting a bribe from a sex worker – and took a picture of the culprit with her phone “I sent an MMS of the picture to an officer at the Johannesburg Central Police Station and they have promised to investigate.” The police reservist was carrying his police jacket in a plastic bag and demanded money from the sex worker, taking R10 after she said it was all she had. (Picture right)
In Limpopo provincial co-ordinator of the Sisonke Sex Worker Movement and partner organisation, Thohoyandou Victim Empowerment Programme (TVEP) assisted a sex worker who was whipped on the stomach by police officers there. Prince Nare of TVEP said “she is a migrant sex worker and even though we encouraged her, she would not go to the hospital or clinic to have her injuries treated because she was afraid of being deported”.
The march in Limpopo had to be cancelled because the Musina Local Municipality took away permission for sex workers to march less than 24 hours before the March was expected to start. No reasons provided in writing and the Station Commander at Musina Police Station threatened sex workers and the convener of the march with arrest and detention should they deliver the memorandum that sex workers had prepared. Sex workers had proposed that the group to deliver the Memorandum would be made of up only 5 people, but the Station Commander still refused. “I was not surprised that the police would do such a thing,” said Mickey Meji of the African Sex Worker Alliance, “sex workers are sent away from police stations all the time when they want to report crimes. In fact our Memorandum demanded that they stop this practice and take complaints from sex workers seriously.”
Kyomya Macklean the regional coordinator for the African Sex Worker Alliance who organized this march stated: “People who brutalize sex workers do so with the hope that sex workers will feel too afraid to come out and report these events. Can these police officers not see that these women have feelings and that they were really scared or do they simply see sex workers as an object? When you kicked her do you not have any sense of remorse and concern for the victim or is this something that brings you enjoyment, a malicious and tic violence that comes from acting as a law unto yourself and feeling power, control and pleasure in hurting the other and reducing them to feeling helpless? But I want you to know, we will not be turned into objects and we will have the courage to be powerful and seek justice and demand we are treat with respect. You will not take taking away and undermine our capacity to experience ourselves in powerful and independent women.”
The Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) will be following up all cases and working with our legal advice partners in Johannesburg and Limpopo to ensure that the police officers responsible for the incidences will be harshly disciplined. But, says Mickey Meji “until sex work is decriminalized, we will be dealing with the impunity of the police. The law with regard to sex work must be changed so that sex workers are safe and no aspect of their work should be criminalized.”