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SA: A red card for the treatment of prostitutes in Cape Town 0

Cape Town has launched a project to clear the streets of prostitution. But police harassment of the city’s sex workers may actually induce the spread of AIDS.

For R., life as a prostitute in Cape Town, South Africa, has never been easy. In the past few months conditions for her and the other 1,200 prostitutes in the region have actually worsened. “The number of police officers and their violence has increased. When I see a police car I get scared and I hide,” she said. This mother in her mid forties has been working as a sex worker for over ten years. She was raped by two police officers while being held at the station. “After, whenever they passed in their police car they would harass me. In the end I moved but I never dared file a complaint.”

In South Africa prostitution is illegal but only prostitutes can be charged. Many NGOs have asked that the sector be legalised or that a moratorium be set up for the duration of the World Cup to insure the safety of the girls and their clients. In the last few months the authorities have done just the opposite and have cracked down on the sector.  Last October the police introduced a new police squad with the sole task of fining and arresting prostitutes.

According to Dianne Massawe of the NGO SWEAT this squad was set up to clean up the streets of Cape Town – number one tourist destination in the country – before the tourists arrived for the games. “Like the police the squad harasses and arrests girls without ever bringing the cases to court.” A few weeks back the squad started to attack brothels as well. SWEAT recently polled thirty prostitutes on the conditions they face. Half reported that they had undergone some sort of police harassment.

Counter productive

The spokes person for the squad, Neil Arendse, responded to these accusations and said that in six months the squad had “profiled” over 300 prostitutes and given out €20,000 in fines. He denied the accusation that women were harassed but never charged or taken to court. He assured that the operations were carried out without violence.

A new scandal broke a few months back when a local newspaper divulged that the Mayor had struck a partnership with an American civil militia group, the Guardian Angels. Twenty American volunteers have planned to make the trip to Cape Town to join another 300South African “guardian angels.” Arendse said that the partnership was not part of any specific mission. “We simply plan to intensify our operations, within a legal framework. For us it makes no difference if the client is a foreign tourist,” says Arendse.

According to some experts the assault on the sex trade is completely unproductive. “Prostitution is not going to end from one day to the next and certainly not during the World Cup,” said Eric Harper, the director of SWEAT, with a note of irritation. Nothing is going to stop R., for example, from taking advantage of this money making opportunity. “I will do what ever I can to get near to the tourists. I can already see the Euros and Dollars. I would also like to create a network of foreigners who will come back to see me.”

Returning home with AIDS

According to Dianne Massawe, when the sex trade is criminalised and police violence is rampant prostitutes are put into further danger because they are forced to go work in more dangerous zones. When it becomes more difficult for prostitutes to protect themselves it also becomes more difficult for prostitutes to protect their clients, explained Marlise Richter, who works for a consultant organization that works with the South African government. “Given that South Africa has the highest rates of HIV in the world, there is a real concern that tourists could leave having contracted an STD. If sex workers were legally recognised they would face less risks and so would the tourists,” she said.

SWAET reported that many prostitutes no longer have any condoms. The sex workers blame the police. They say that their condoms were taken as evidence of their crimes by the police.  The infection rate of prostitutes in South Africa is said to be as high as 45 per cent.

By Clémence Petit Perrot – Syfia

In the picture: A prostitute near the Cape Town stadium

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