File photo - Sex workers say that the police, who are supposed to protect them, are actually abusing them. Picture: Brenton Geach

"The police abuse us instead of protecting us."

These are the words of Cape Town sex worker Angie de Bruin, 54, who is tired of the abuse faced as a vulnerable person in an illegal profession.

Working as a paralegal for the Sex Workers' Education and Advocacy Taskforce (Sweat), she is a regular witness to the abuse of power by some policemen.

“It's like the apartheid era. When I see the June 16, 1976 (Youth day) incident, it's like that, cops beating us, chasing us, raping us,” she said.

“They should be protecting us and helping to (us) work in a safe environment, protecting us from the gangsters and the pimps.”

De Bruin was lured into the industry at the age of 22 by the promise of money. She took to Main Road in Kenilworth to make a living and has been there, on and off, for 20 years.

“I became a paralegal because I wanted to make it my mission to fight against the violation of women's rights,” she said. “It's my passion.”

She said it was scary how many policemen had taken advantage of her and her colleagues.

“There are nights when I don't sleep because I'm thinking of what is happening to those girls out there.”

In one instance, she was picked up by a man who drove her to a dark road in Constantia. He then said he was a policeman and she should have sex with him without payment.

She asked to see his badge but he couldn't produce one.

“I told him right there that he could kill me, but he wasn't going to rape me. I saw him a while later in uniform.”

De Bruin spoke of a colleague who found herself in a similar situation in Bellville.

“She was raped by a policeman in the morgue, in 2008 or 2009. He didn't want to pay her after business.”

She said it was a regular occurrence for police to herd together sex workers at night and strip them naked before throwing them into their vans.

They would then take photos to “identify them in case they go missing”. It was not uncommon for the sex workers to be pepper-sprayed, even on their private parts.

Last year, an officer kicked de Bruin's colleague between the legs and laughed about it. She was supposed to get married that weekend, but couldn't because of her injuries.

Sweat has encouraged sex workers to report all cases of abuse and, if possible, take down the police van numbers, the names of the policemen involved, and the times of the incidents.

South Africa has an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 sex workers, who operate illegally under the Sexual Offences Act.

Sweat director Sally Shackleton said there was little information about the industry, as it was criminalised and stigmatised.

“The number of (abuse) reports we get is a tiny fraction of the actual incidences of violence.”

In a recent study conducted by the Women’s Legal Centre (WLC), 12 percent of Cape Town's sex workers reported having been raped by police, 46 percent threatened by police, and 28 percent forced into sexual favours by police.

In 2009, sex workers got an interdict against the police in the Cape High Court to stop harassment. The court found they were unlawfully arresting and detaining workers without charging them.

WLC attorney Stacey-Leigh Manoek said the centre was putting a claim together to challenge the violations of this order.

The centre was also hoping to obtain an interdict stopping the police from unlawfully profiling sex workers.

National police spokesman Vishnu Naidoo said it was not the trend for police to harass workers.

“We certainly don't condone harassment. It (sex work) is a crime nonetheless. In the handling of these cases, it's often misconstrued as harassment.”

Western Cape police spokesman Lt-Col Andrè Traut said the harassment of sex workers, depending on the merits and circumstances, was not only against regulations but a criminal offence too.

Both he and Naidoo advised sex workers to report such offences to the station commander at their local police station.

Workers will march to five police stations around the country on Saturday to mark International Sex Workers' Rights Day. They will hand over a memorandum of demands to stop harassment. - Sapa