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Sex workers march to call an end to police abuse

In commemoration of International Sex Worker Rights Day, sex workers and human rights activists will once again take to the streets to protest the continued abuse sex workers experience at the hands of the police, and the criminal justice system's failure to prosecute the perpetrators.

"Johannesburg is marching tomorrow, but the other four cities will be demonstrating on International Women's Day, the 8th of March. This is because the majority of sex workers are women. And it's time that their abuse was recognised as a form of gender-based violence", said the Sex Workers' Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) Advocacy Officer, Ntokozo Yingwana.

SWEAT is a human rights-based non-profit organisation that advocates for the recognition of sex workers' rights as human rights.

These marches take place on the same day that the eight Daveyton South African Police Service (SAPS) officers will be appearing in court for the first time after being captured on camera dragging a handcuffed 27 year old taxi driver, Mido Macia, behind a police van for nearly 500 meters. Macia later died in police custody.

"As Sisonke we feel for the Macia family, and call on the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) to implement the law. We are still looking for the body of a Rustenburg sex worker, only known as Lerato, who was reported to have died in police custody in September last year. It is a shame that sex workers' deaths are barely investigated by the IPID, and hardly mentioned in the news. It is as if our lives do not count", said Sisonke National Coordinator, Kholi Buthelezi.

Sisonke is the only South African movement of sex workers, led by sex workers. The movement is calling for the decriminalisation of sex work.

According to the IPID's 2011/2012 annual report, 720 complaints of deaths at the hands of police were reported. However, in the same period, only 18 officers were convicted on charges related to these deaths.

Approximately 70% of sex workers experienced abuse at the hands of police according to a study by the Women's Legal Centre (WLC), published in August 2012.

"In order to address this human rights crisis, and the human rights violations that sex workers experience, South Africa should decriminalise the selling and buying of sex, and the system should be reformed to bring the treatment of sex workers in line with our constitutional and international obligations to reduce this type of abuse", said WLC lawyer, Stacey-Leigh Manoek.

Zandie (not her real name), a 27 year old street-based sex worker and Sisonke member was raped by a Khayelitsha police officer, in August last year.

"I was working in Parow, and a man in a white Chevrolet stopped next to me. When I saw he was a police officer I tried to run away, but he threatened to call back-up if I did not get into his car. Once inside he asked what my prices were. I refused to tell him, so he said he would just take one of them then. He said if I did not give him my services he would arrest me. He then proceeded to do whatever he wanted with me in the car", recalls Zandie.

After reporting the case to SWEAT and WLC the "police officer started following me and I couldn't sleep at night", added Zandie.

A departmental hearing with the IPID was held, at which Zandie testified. However, a couple of days later the charges were unceremoniously dropped.

"I am not happy that the justice system failed me; they are supposed to protect us and not cause more harm", concluded Zandie.

"As a country, we cannot sustain a situation in which the most vulnerable are preyed upon by those meant to protect them, and that those who abuse women who are sex workers can do so with impunity. As we have seen, this impunity leaves no one safe", said SWEAT Director, Sally-Jean Shackleton.

Demonstrators will be demanding that the SAPS meet with representatives of Sisonke by the end of the month to review how they deal with sex work.

International Sex Worker Rights Day was first celebrated on the 3rd of March in 2001 when over 25 000 sex workers gathered in India for a sex worker festival. Since then sex worker groups across the world have used the day to call for sex workers' rights to be recognised as human rights.

In 1975, during International Women's Year, the United Nations (UN) began celebrating the 8th of March as International Women's Day. The UN has declared this year's theme to be: "A promise is a promise: Time for action to end violence against women".

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