More than 60 police officers took part in a human rights training session with sex workers and advocacy organisations in Cape Town yesterday.
Police officers from Bellville, Parow and Goodwood police stations took part in the three-hour workshop, together with the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT), Sisonke - the only national movement of sex workers, Triangle Project, Gender Dynamix and the Womens Legal Centre (WLC).
This training follows a visit by Deputy Minister of Police Makhotso Maggie Sotyu to SWEAT last month where she heard first-hand from sex workers the harassment and abuse they experience in the hands of police.
The objective of this three-hour training was to sensitise police on the vulnerability of transgender people, and to inform members on the legal rights of sex workers. It is the first in a series of trainings working with local police stations where complaints against some of the stations’ officers have been reported by sex workers to SWEAT and WLC. The training was designed to encourage participation and involved much discussion.
In a recent study conducted by the WLC: ‘Stop Harassing Us! Tackle Real Crime! A report on Human Rights Violations By Police Against Sex Workers In South Africa’, 70% of the 308 sex workers interviewed had experienced some form of abuse by police.
Some of the concerns raised by the police officers included drug dealing by pimps, pressure to respond to complaints from residents where sex workers operate, and the frustration of trying to enforce an inapplicable law. The Director of SWEAT, Sally-Jean Shackleton, encouraged members to use the 24-hour toll-free sex worker Help Line (0800 60 60 60) if they felt someone needed assistance.
"The government has left this for so long. It’s just too big for us. It’s like during apartheid. During that time we had to run around arresting everyone without a card [dom pass]. As soon as the government sorts itself out we will then know what to do”, said a female police officer at this training.
Colonel Cloete, an attorney of the Provincial Commissioners Office, reminded the police officers what they can and cannot do when arresting sex workers. “Just treat everyone with dignity, and there will be no problems", Cloete told the police officers.
"Although there are still many issues regarding searching procedures, and gender segregated facilities to protect transgender people from being sexually assaulted by fellow inmates that remain unresolved, we are optimistic about this initiative, and are committed to working with SAPS and other stakeholders to deal with these challenges", said Sibusiso Kheswa of Gender Dynamix.
“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”, said WLC human rights' lawyer Stacey-Leigh Manoek.
Sharon Cox Ludwig of Triangle Project closed the training by urging the police officers to treat every sex worker they come across as a human being. “No matter what your religion is, or what the law says, just remember that this person in front of me is a human being”.
“For us this is a first step towards better relations with the police, and a good opportunity for us to hear what their issues are, and for them to hear what are our concerns. So we can start working together, because at the end the day we are both tasked with protecting human rights”, said Sisonke National Coordinator Kholi Buthelezi.