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‘Police harass sex workers’

On Monday mornings around 10:00 am Thandeka* will be waiting for customers in the center of Johannesburg. In the back of her mind, her two children are at home in Soweto. Their school fees are excellent and she has no money to fill their packed lunches.

Thandeka is a sex worker, but she hasn’t been able to work much lately, she says, because the police arrest and harass sex workers day and night. She claims that police officers regularly spray the women with pepper spray and bundle them into police vans to detain them at the police station.

In a December incident, police fired rubber bullets to disperse sex workers from Anderson and End Streets, Thandeka claims.

It’s not just the arrests she’s complaining about, but the violence that comes with them, violence that often extends to rape. She claims that she has been raped by police officers more than once in her career as a sex worker.

Thandeka believes that if the police understood the plight of sex workers, they would behave differently. “For example, I am a mother. There is a lot that my kids need and I raised them through sex work because I haven’t been able to find another job until now. Putting themselves in my shoes would reduce the stigma and violence they display towards us,” she says.

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She hopes the spread of awareness training for police officers will help curb the violence that many sex workers suffer from.

A study by the SA Medical Research Council, the Wits School of Public Health and other partners, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health last December, found that violence against sex workers was common.

The survey, which surveyed 3,005 sex workers in 12 locations in South Africa’s nine provinces, found that 14% of female sex workers had been raped by police officers. An AIDSFonds survey, conducted in July 2018 of nearly 2,000 sex workers, found that 39% reported violence and 31% reported sexual assault by police officers. The survey was conducted by sex workers trained to interview their peers.

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