Zim’s civil society concerned over criminalisation of sex work

Zimbabwe’s civil society organisations (CSOs) are concerned over the approach of the state in addressing sex work, according to a 2012 shadow report made to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) committee.

In the report, CSO argue that womenwho are engaged in sex work are more likely than men who are engaged in the same profession to be regularly rounded up by the police. In addition, whereas males clientele are not expressly targeted by current legislation and there is a veneer of sex and gender neutrality in the drafting, women are often the target of current laws.

The CSO report argues that the continued criminalisation of sex work perpetuates age old patterns of discrimination against women. The organisations say that despite the Zimbabwe government’s report to the UN convention, which states that the law has changed to ‘ensure a higher degree of reasonable suspicion is applied before one is arrested for prostitution,’ in reality the law is persistently misapplied and sex workers still report being arrested for loitering.

“This speaks to a more serious issue of police abuse of power, deliberately arresting and detaining sex workers with no formal charges, denying them the right to legal representation, access to their medication as well as subjecting them to torture, abuse and harassment,” a CSO spokesperson said.

The CSOs say the attitude of the police, the harassment of female sex workers and the violent treatment of sex workers whilst in detention are serious violations of women’s rights. It is reported that sex workers who have attempted to report cases of sexual violence have been told ‘it is not possible to rape a sex worker’, according to the Sexual Rights Centre research.

CSOs say that the criminalisation of sex work has a several fold impact on sex workers, particularly female sex workers. lt is said that they are not provided with equal protection in the eyes of the law, they are denied the highest attainable standard of health ,information and resources on sexual reproductive health rights and are subjected to violence, torture and inhumane treatment.

In the shadow report, women’s civil society organisations have recommended that the state change its approach towards eradication of exploitation of sex work rather than criminalizing it.

It is also recommended that the state in its approach towards curbing human trafficking should distinguish between commercial sex workers and victims of trafficking for purposes of sexual exploitation.

It is said that criminalizing commercial sex work does not address the problem of trafficking, it drives the activities underground and the victims are subjected to even worse conditions than they would if they were paraded in the streets.

The shadow report was presented by the Zimbabwe Women Lawyers Association (ZWLA) with the support of Action Aid, African Centre for Law and Justice, Disabled Women’s Support Organisations including Padare just to mention a few.