The 17th December marks the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. This date was first celebrated in 2003 and has since become an international day to call attention to the injustices and violations that sex workers experience.
A report recently released by Open Society Institute (OSI) entitled Right Not Rescue explores the experiences of female, male and trans sex workers in Botswana, South Africa and Namibia has some crucial lessons for work in Zimbabwe. The report explored violence against sex workers from the police and general public, unequal access to health care and social services, stigma and discrimination and social exclusion. However, the most important issue that is raised in this report is that sex workers are demanding rights. Sex workers are not demanding ‘rescue’ or to be saved from sex work, but instead are demanding recognition of their human rights.
This report highlights many issues that the Sexual Rights Centre have identified in their research with sex workers in Zimbabwe.
Many sex workers in Zimbabwe have experienced some form of verbal, physical or sexual abuse. The perpetrators of this violence are often the police or clients. Sex workers have been detained and forced to engage in sexual activities with police officers to ensure their release. Many officers offered protection for free sex. Rape against sex workers is common, but cases are rarely reported for fear of repercussions and because of negative and discriminatory attitudes towards sex workers.
Sex workers have also reported ongoing stigma from the medical profession, particularly in the treatment of STIs. The doctors often ridicule the women, pretend not to understand or refuse to write prescriptions. The women are often treated very differently when they go for an HIV test.
The overtly misogynistic legislation in Zimbabwe harshly impacts on commercial sex workers. In addition to legislation on loitering, commercial sex workers struggle to access the courts or police to deal with legal issues. This includes seeking child maintenance, permission for an abortion, protection from harassment or abuse.
Sex workers experience constant social stigma and discrimination. Projects and programmes with sex workers in Zimbabwe and other countries in the region to remove or ‘save’ women from the industry through rehabilitation as well as providing HIV/AIDS services. In the OSI report many women commented that these projects were very discriminatory and prevented women from making their own decisions. These approaches ignore the capacity of sex workers to organise themselves for example into HIV/AIDS support groups, but more importantly; these views disregard the desires and needs of sex workers to make decisions over their own bodies and to choose their own profession.
The experience of the Sexual Rights Centre is that sex workers have a variety of strategies to encourage/persuade clients to use condoms. Sex workers support each other and have a number of different approaches and methods to address human rights abuses and violations. We should not categorise all sex workers as passive victims, unable to make decisions about their lives.
Seeking human rights for sex workers is not about encouraging people to enter the industry, it is about acknowledging that sex workers have the right to choose. If women and men choose to remain in sex work they have a right to be protected. The Sexual Rights Centre has identified five key recommendations to protect sex workers human rights: decriminalisation of sex work, which would enable sex workers to access justice and work to reduce violence and discrimination against sex workers; create a safe and enabling environment that encourages sex workers to report human rights violations; end impunity for the perpetrators of violence against sex workers; support sex worker-led projects and initiatives that ensure the self-determination of sex workers; educate service providers and NGOs about rights-based approach to working with sex workers.
Sex workers rights are human rights and if we can start acknowledging the importance of advocating for sex workers rights rather than forcing an agenda of rehabilitation on women and men who work in the industry then we will be making significant strides in achieving a human rights environment in Zimbabwe.
This article was written by Sian Maseko, the Director of Sexual Rights Centre.