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‘They Say We’re Sinners’: Protecting Malawi’s Sex Workers from Police

Discrimination and misunderstanding of the law are causing tensions between Malawi’s police and sex workers, who often accuse officers of abusing them. A local NGO is stepping in to help sex workers uphold their rights and teach police to look past the stigma.

Written by Rumbi Chakamba Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
Although prostitution is not illegal in Malawi, rights advocates say sex workers are still being unfairly targeted by police. AFP/Monirul Bhuiyan

GABORONE, Botswana – Although there is no law against prostitution in Malawi, sex workers routinely face abuse and wrongful arrest by police who give in to social stigma and misunderstand the law, according to campaigners. That leaves them vulnerable to violence, because they can’t rely on police to help them when they are assaulted by their clients.

Zinenani Majawa, national coordinator with the Female Sex Workers Alliance, says the group’s members often report incidents of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of customers and police officers.

“In one of our meetings,” she remembers, “one member said, ‘I feel like someone who has no rights … Police officers continue to abuse us and do not offer protection, service or justice; they harass us, saying that we are spreading HIV, [that we are] immoral and sinners.’”

With sex workers in Malawi unable to trust the police, one organization has taken on the task of ensuring the women are aware of their rights, giving them a safe place to report abuse.

The Centre for Human Rights Education Advice and Assistance (CHREAA) focuses on the protection of vulnerable groups. Its executive director, Victor Mhango, says the organization noticed a disturbing trend of mass arrest of sex workers three years ago. 

When they looked into it, they discovered that the police were wrongly arresting sex workers using the “rogue and vagabond law” – which allows police to detain anyone on public property whom they suspect of engaging in illegal or disorderly activity – or under section 146 of the penal code, which prohibits someone from living on money made through prostitution, a law originally designed to protect sex workers from being exploited.

CHREAA also confirmed allegations by sex workers of abuse while in police custody. “Our research proved that indeed most of them were being harassed sexually or were being raped, or harassed in other ways while in police custody,” Mhango says.

Those findings prompted the organization to launch a project in 2016 to protect sex workers from police abuse. The main focus of the project is to make the community aware of sex-worker rights. CHREAA conducts rights-awareness training programs with both sex workers and police, and plans to expand the program to include health workers and other members of the community.

The organization also runs awareness campaigns in bars that sex workers frequent and has set up a toll-free line that they can use to report abuse. It places its paralegals in police stations across the country to assist sex workers in custody.

But to ensure sex workers don’t always have to rely on CHREAA to represent them, the organization trained one to become a paralegal last year. It plans to offer this training to more people involved in the trade in the hope that they will be able to provide legal assistance to and educate each other.

Since the launch of its project, CHREAA has also been challenging the laws used by the police to justify the arbitrary arrests of sex workers. Over the past year, the organization, with the assistance of the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC), has managed to appeal the convictions of 19 sex workers for living on the earnings of prostitution. And in January this year, the CHREAA and SALC succeeded in having the rogue and vagabond law declared unconstitutional and invalid.

But the lingering stigma around sex work will be more difficult to tackle, say campaigners.

Majawa from the Female Sex Workers Alliance says that, despite the invalidation of the vagabond law, most sex workers still do not feel safe because they have been previously abused by the same people tasked with protecting them.

She would like to see an independent unit, set up by an organization outside the police, that sex workers can go to to report cases of abuse. And she calls for an end to discrimination against sex workers.

“Being a sex worker does not mean you are not a human being,” Majawa says. “We are also human beings who have to be respected and accepted in our communities. We do not expect to be discriminated against and abused by both the community and the police.”

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