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Johannesburg - Of 80 sex workers based in Johannesburg, 52 (65 percent) had been abused by police, the Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre (TLAC) said on Thursday.
“The most common forms of abuse experienced by sex workers are emotional violence such as swearing, insults, spitting, and being chased away, at least one incident of physical abuse, and unlawful arrests,” the TLAC said in a statement, citing a recent study of 80 street-based sex workers.
Sixteen percent of the sex workers surveyed indicated they had experienced physical abuse, and a further five percent experienced sexual assaults from police officers.
Such treatment went against the police's code of ethics. Although their role was to serve and protect, many police officers acted unlawfully.
“Engagements with the police have shown that some officers struggle to execute their roles due to the difficult nature of policing sex work,” the centre said.
“As a result they are forced to utilise municipal by-laws of loitering to arrest sex workers and remove them from their places of work.”
Of the 80 sex workers, 12 (15 percent) said they had been arrested, with 10 percent stating they were held in holding cells without appearing in court.
“Where we have assisted sex workers to lay charges against errant police, all these cases never proceeded to court because of sex workers' fear of harassment and intimidation from police,” the centre said.
It would also have a negative impact on their ability to make a living.
The study found sex workers continued to be vulnerable to abuse from both police and clients, which limited their human rights and affected their income.
This in turn prevented them from accessing services such as health care, social and legal services.
“A legal opinion obtained shows that using loitering by-laws to 'police' sex workers is illegal and open to various legal challenges,” the TLAC said.
“The findings of the research study, conducted with Sisonke, the sex worker's rights movement, once again proves why decriminalisation of adult sex work is necessary.”
It would compel police to focus on serious crime, and support sex workers to realise their rights to safety and security, dignity, and other critical services.
Police were not immediately available for comment.