Worrying increase in crackdown and arrest of sex workers in several African countries

There has been an increase in crackdown and arrest of sex workers in several countries across Africa. Several countries have launched initiatives to ‘bring back African morals and values’.

For the last three months, over 300 sex workers in Tanzania, Democratic Republic Congo (DRC), Angola, South Sudan and Burundi have reportedly been arrested. Raids and abuse by police officers are reportedly widespread in these countries with gross human rights violations against sex workers.

In DRC, several sex workers are still in police custody since their arrest in September.

Reports indicate that more than 200 sex workers were arrested in the capital city, Kinshasa, after a directive by the area mayor to impose an ‘ethical regulation’.

In September, Kinshasa’s Council of Ministers issued a decree giving the police authority to enforce ‘a moral code’ by arresting any individual ‘displaying immorality’. Reports by human rights organisations say this has led to random arrests and detention especially of women perceived to be sex workers.

The initiative known as UJANA (Juvenile Delinquency Close to Prostitution) includes enforcing a dress code to prevent ‘moral decay’ in Kinshasa.

According to the mayor, UJANA is an ‘moral undertaking’ to keep minors away from bars, clubs, hotels or any other entertainment joints.

However, activists say police have used UJANA to harass and arbitrarily arrest women for flimsy reasons such as wearing short dresses or walking at night. So far, about 208 sex workers have been arrested on unclear charges. Some have been released after posting ‘bail’ while others remain in police custody with no indication if they will be charged with any crime.

Sources say around 500 sex workers have been arrested, and more than 300 instances of extortion and intimidation of sex workers by police have been recorded since UJANA was launched.

According to Congolese Alliance for Human Rights Projects of Sex Work (ACODHU-TS), a network of sex worker led organisations in DR Congo, arrested sex workers are being held in deplorable conditions and have limited if any access to legal representation. The organisation says since the launch of the initiative, cases of violence from clients taking advantage of sex workers’ need to work in more hidden ways to avoid arrest have increased.

The organisation is looking to organise an emergency roundtable meeting with different partners to lobby the government to protect the rights of sex workers. It is also hoped that the meeting will push for enforcement of distinctive human trafficking laws.

At the moment, a blanket application of these laws have led to arbitrary arrest of sex workers willingly selling their services.

The organisation also hopes to secure the release of the sex workers being held since September.

In Tanzania, a pronouncement in October by Dar es Salaam’s Regional Commissioner, Paul Makonda, that a task force would be formed to crackdown on LGBT persons has heightened arbitrary arrests of sex workers.

The commissioner was also quoted urging reporting to authorities of any persons thought to be LGBT and sex workers.

According to Women in Dignity*, several sex workers have been arrested since then.

“Several sex workers say police broke into their houses after the commissioner’s announcement,” the organisation said in a statement to African Sex Workers Alliance (ASWA).

The organisation also reported that police raided brothels and hotspots and assaulted or arrested several sex workers.

“Left with no option and fearing for their lives, some of them paid bail for imaginary crimes,” says a sex worker interviewed amid the crackdown.

To escape arrest, several sex workers are said to have fled from Tanzania to neighbouring DRC putting them at risk of further violations or event detention.

In addition to the crackdown, the government of Tanzania has said it is reviewing the Non-Governmental Organisations Act of 2001 to closely monitor activities of the civil society.

The revised laws are likely to further affect human rights advocacy by sex worker-led groups already constrained by President John Magufuli’s regular statements that Tanzania has no room for sex workers and other Key Populations.

Legally, sex worker is considered a misdemeanor under the Tanzania’s Penal Code. However, law enforcers occasionally abuse their powers through extortion and sexual abuse of sex workers. Reports by human rights organisations such as Front Line Defenders show that sex workers are often raped and abused while in police custody.

The reports say sex workers are often forced to bribe their way to freedom through intimidation and blackmail by police officers.

In Angola, the government has launched ‘Operation Rescue’ (Operação Resgate). According to the government, the objective of the operation is to assert the authority of the State by among other things ‘ending prostitution’. This operation is also targeting migrant sex workers especially those from DR Congo.

In November, the leader of Action For Solidarity And Community Health – ASSC, an organisation fighting for the rights of sex workers and a member were arrested for allegedly promoting ‘prostitution’.

Sex work in Angola is illegal, but the law does not explicitly state charges for offering services, soliciting or running a brothel. However, the country’s anti-trafficking laws have been used to arrest and detain sex worker.

Dirao Dirao, the leader of ASSC spent 15 days behind bars on different charges. A member of the organisation was also locked up. Dirao was accused of recruiting sex workers after police searched his documents and found a list of attendance of a meeting convened by ASSC in October. He also allegedly abetted human traffcking by helping two migrant sex worker from DR Congo, who are among hundreds that have fled prosecution in their country.

He was released on bail and the DRC sex workers expelled from Angola after paying $250 despite their pleas that they were facing prosecution in their country. “The Angolan woman was beaten by police for allegedly selling sex and also resisting arrest,” says Dirao. He says that the police have intensified crackdown on sex workers consequently driving them underground and leaving them vulnerable to violence and stigma.

In South Sudan, sex workers are facing increased violence from authorities especially in the capital, Juba.

Still recovering from decades of war, South Sudan has varied proclamations on sex work. Generally, it is said that sex work is legal but related activities such as soliciting or brothel keeping are illegal.

However, according to the mayor of the Capital City Juba, the Constitution prohibits sex work punishment is imprisonment or paying fine or both.

As such, authorities have been carrying on swoops and arresting sex workers.

In October, Juba City Council arrested several sex workers and forcefully tested them for HIV. In further violation of their rights, the results were released to a third party.

During the swoop, more 150 sex workers were arrested and activists say they remain under police custody.

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