By Zaheer Cassim
Sex workers are made extremely vulnerable by corruption in the police force, needing protection from officers who demand sex or money from them. This emerged from the 2012 Cosatu Gender Conference in Johannesburg on Tuesday 27 March, where the decriminalization of sex work was discussed.
Sally-Jean Shackleton, director of the Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (Sweat) said police are the often worst offenders when it comes to the harassment of sex workers in Johannesburg.
“The women have to pay a R900 bribe to be released or not to taken into custody,” she said. Police also ask the women for sex in return for not being arrested. If the women refuse these demands, they can be thrown into jail for days without access to anti-retroviral treatment or food.
A similar situation in the Western Cape is made worse by police also deterring sex workers from using protection.
“We are finding in Cape Town that sex workers are being searched for condoms, which are then used as evidence against them,” said Shackleton.
A study by the Women’s Legal Centre (WLC) revealed that more than a third of sex workers in the Western Cape don’t carry condoms on them because they fear police harassment and abuse. The study, conducted between September 2009 and June 2011, found that more than 70% of sex workers had experienced some form of abuse from police officers.
WLC attorney Stacey-Leigh Manoek said her organisation is working with Sweat to compile a list of officers and stations most culpable of this kind of abuse. The WLC has also filed five civil damages against the minister of police for unlawful arrests and detention amounting to R500 000.
But the police have said that unless sex workers are willing to come forward and lay a formal complaint themselves, nothing will be done.
Sweat and the WLC hope this year’s conference will create awareness of the problem and mobilise South African women behind the push to decriminalise sex work. Shackleton is also working with union group Sisonke to create a unit in the union specifically for sex workers and the protection of their rights.