Press Statement: Targeting of sex workers

57 sex workers arrested this weekend

This past weekend (4 and 6 December 2020) 57 sex workers were arrested around the country. None were officially charged with anything related to sex work, but 28 migrant sex workers have been charged under the Immigration Act and appeared in courts in Germiston, Polokwane, and Pretoria yesterday.

In Durban four sex workers were arrested on Saturday evening and taken to Margate Police Station. They were promptly released without charge when the police learnt that one of the sex workers called the SWEAT Helpline.  

A further 21 sex workers were arrested this weekend in Germiston. On Friday, seven sex workers were taken by the police to Germiston Police Station, kept overnight and released the next day without charge. On the Saturday evening 14 migrant sex workers were also arrested and taken to Germiston police station where they were told that their papers are expired. They were kept overnight and appeared in court yesterday, 7 December; charged under the Immigration Act. Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) represented them in court. They were released after they were able to provide documentation corroborating their immigration statuses.   

According to reports, police in Polokwane jumped over fences and kicked down doors to arrest 24 sex workers from different houses on Friday, 4 December. All of them were taken to Polokwane police station and charged with ‘prostitution’ (including one Sisonke staff member who just returned from the ANCWL/ANCYL #WomenofSA national march). The charge made no sense since none were doing sex work at the time nor were there any clients found at any of the houses. At the police station seven were profiled (pictures taken and fingerprinted) before being released along with 10 others without charge. Seven migrant sex workers also appeared yesterday, charged under the Immigration Act and also represented in court by LHR.

Eight sex workers were arrested on Friday in Pretoria and taken to Sunnyside police station. They were profiled and then released with court appearance dates. Migrant sex workers, when arrested are often seen as either victims of trafficking or sex or drug traffickers. The reality is that like any other work, people move to cities and other countries to find work on the back of growth in global trade and tourism.   For migrant sex workers in South Africa, the challenges are enormous. There has been no regard for those struggling to access Home Affairs services due to COVID19. Both SWEAT and Sisonke, the national movement of sex workers, assert that the human rights of all sex workers, regardless of nationality, gender or ethnicity are at the forefront of all our efforts and the targeting of migrant sex workers is entirely unacceptable.

The targeting, profiling, extortion, violence, and human rights violations sex workers experience at the hands of police are well documented and it was even acknowledged by both the Deputy Ministers of the Departments of Social Development and the Police at a recent collaborative dialogue with sex workers. In our research, the police remain the most consistent and systemic source of abuse in terms of physical violence, sexual violence, and human rights violations. Practices include arbitrary arrests and “punishment”, condom confiscation as “proof of solicitation”, made up documentation to aid in extortion, etc.

It is a shocking indictment on how real this problem remains that 57 sex workers could be put through the trauma and violence of arrest, incarceration and court appearances and yet not one charge actually related to sex work was brought against a single person. It is particularly disgraceful that the police chose now to launch this concerted attack on sex workers. Not only are we in the middle of 16 Days of activism in which sex workers have taken a leading role in activities demanding an end to violence against women, including those organised by government departments and agencies but we are also still in the midst of the global COVID pandemic. The impact of the virus and the lockdown has been devastating for sex workers, most have had almost no income for 9 months and they and their families have faced near starvation. The ongoing Criminalisation of sex work enables a context in which scarce police resources are used to target vulnerable and currently desperate women who are doing nothing more than trying to earn a living and feed their families. It is disgraceful that so many promises to prioritise decriminalisation from the highest levels of government have come to nothing.

We call on the Minister of Police to intervene to ensure that sex workers are not targeted in an attempt to bolster arrest statistics and we call on the government to immediately follow through on their commitment to the full decriminalisation of adult sex work.