Durban - Police are failing to investigate regular incidents of rape of young sex workers operating on Durban’s beachfront. So says Vashti Downs, a 41-year-old Christian missionary and founder of Anchor’s Hope, an organisation that cares for street prostitutes.
Police have responded saying that it was not possible to investigate alleged rape cases if charges were not laid. But Downs argues that sex workers are turned away when they try to report a case.
“They are told prostitutes don’t deserve the help that other rape victims get. They get thrown out of the police stations, so most girls don’t ever want to report what happens to them anymore. The humiliation of being rejected by police, just adds to their trauma,” said Downs.
Downs said the situation highlighted the precarious and dangerous life of sex workers. She has welcomed the recent ANC resolution to decriminalise prostitution in South Africa, but believes that a shift in people’s attitudes towards sex workers is where real change is needed – particularly in the ranks of the police.
Downs has called on the city to develop a comprehensive rehabilitation programme catering for young women trapped in the seedy underworld of Durban’s sex trade.
Among people who have reached out to Anchor’s Hope, was 20-year-old Siam Lee who was abducted from a Durban North brothel on January 4. Her burned body was found on a New Hanover farm two days later.
“Siam wrote to me on September 15 asking for guidance and prayers,” said Downs. “She shared her life story with me and also wanted to help girls who were in a worse situation than her. “Technically, Siam had options. At least she had a good education, and lived and worked in a decent neighbourhood which is not the case with most of the other girls we work with.”
Downs said late last year Siam advised her she had collected clothes for Hope’s Anchor. Siam never got to hand them over before she was abducted and killed.
Assisted by volunteers, Downs has been caring for sex workers on Durban’s beachfront for 10 years now, providing counselling, food packages, clothing and hygiene supplies.
She said the number of sex workers working on the beachfront had dramatically increased in recent years. Her group now works with more than 100 young women.
“Many clients treat them well, but there are many sickos out there,” said Downs. “Not a week goes by that we do not hear about rape incidents and serious abuse.”
"And as it currently stands, men who solicit sex – many of them very rich – are never bust. Instead it’s the girls who are always judged to be at fault. They end up getting further harassed and abused at the hands of those who should be protecting them,” said Downs.
Dianne Kohler Barnard, the Democratic Alliance’s shadow deputy minister of police, shares Downs concerns about the policing of the Durban sex trade.
“I’ve studied how countries around the world deal with the sex trade. In 1999, after years of research and study, Sweden passed legislation that officially acknowledged prostitution as a form of male sexual violence against women and children,” said Barnard.
Swedish law now makes it illegal to buy sex, but not to sell the use of one’s body for sexual services. Variations of the “Swedish model”, as it is now called, have since been adopted by Norway, Iceland, Canada, Northern Ireland and France.
“This is what we should also be looking at here,” said Barnard.
Critics of the Swedish model argue that it is very patriarchal, places the onus on women sex workers to protect their clients from prosecution, and drives the sex trade further underground.
Downs said that the hopes of it working in the South African context were also naive in that too many women were dependent on sex work to survive.
Turning sex workers’ clients into criminals will not help them, said Downs.
She said people – and the law – needed to accord women more respect and rights.
“Although I am Christian and my morals tell me that it is wrong to sell one’s body for sex, it would be wrong for me to tell another woman she does not have the right to do so,” said Downs. “Women are fully capable of deciding what they want to do with their lives.”
Downs said paid for sex between consenting adults was not a problem in itself.
It’s “all the other horrible stuff” that goes along with the illegal sex trade, including the violent abuse and human trafficking where the real problems start and where good policing is required.
Amid this, Downs said her mission was to ensure that young women who had been forced by circumstance into the sex trade in order to survive, were given opportunities to opt out. “Tonight when I go down to the beachfront, and one of the girls wants to get out, there is nowhere I can take her for dedicated professional help and rehabilitation,” said Downs, who hopes the city will support her vision of developing a rehabilitation programme for sex workers.
Responding, Ethekwini municipality spokesperson, Tozi Mthethwa, said the city welcomed input from civic groups working to protect the rights of sex workers.
Mthethwa added the city was responsible for enforcing applicable by-laws as well. KZN police spokesperson, Lieutenant-Colonel Thulani Zwane, said any incidents of Durban beachfront police officers refusing to help sex workers who have been allegedly raped should be reported to the SAPS complaints hotline, 079 877 6536.