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The Nation
By Luntha Chimbwete
27 March 2023

It is commonly known that all over the world – including Malawi, women are involved in the sex work industry for a variety of reasons. Since time immemorial, such women, usually referred to as “sex workers”, have globally been stigmatised as a vulnerable and marginalised group. Although not all sex workers are women, it is well-recognised that most of the sex worker population comprises women. It is with this in mind that the Centre for Human Rights Education, Advice and Assistance (CHREAA), the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC) and the Female Sex Workers Association of Malawi (FSWA) are in solidarity, acknowledging this year’s International Women’s Day theme which is to #EmbraceEquity by taking actions that promote true inclusion and belonging in a world with immense diversity.

The term “sex worker” recognises that sex work is work. In the context of Malawi, there is no law that expressly criminalises sex work or prevents sex workers from living on their earnings. Despite this, sex workers routinely face basic civil rights violations by the Malawi Police Services. This is why we believe that equitable actions need to be undertaken so sex workers’ rights are included in all efforts to advance women’s rights.

Police Violence and Abuses of Power Against Sex Workers Needs to Stop

Sex workers in Malawi have routinely complained of being targeted in police sweeping exercises where police conduct mass arrests using petty offence laws such as those of being idle and disorderly. Once in custody, sex workers have a deep fear of being subjected to what is perceived as normal by the very people tasked with the duty to protect them, which is sexual abuse, harassment, intimidation or corruption – where some may be forced to pay bribes in order to be released from such custody. Since sex workers rarely report abuses against them, abusers become emboldened as they believe they will not have to bear any consequences for their actions.

In December 2020, the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights(African Court) criticised petty offence laws for having the effect of punishing poor and underprivileged people. The Court mentioned that these laws specifically target persons who are seen as undesirable in society, such as sex workers. When such people are given different treatment and subjected to abuse and violence because of their status, this violates their right to equality and non-discrimination before the law. In November 2022, the High Court of Zomba reiterated the sentiments of the African Court and criticised police sweeping exercises for tending to have very general objectives by subjecting people to arrest for being on the street at night, even when there is no proof that they have committed a specific offence or engaged in suspicious activity.

“If there are any laws that hold the police accountable, we suggest that grassroots communities are taught these laws and if there are none, we suggest that relevant authorities should make such laws. There should also be wide publications of punishments given to police officers who are arrested due to abuse of their powers to send a strong warning to would-be offenders”.

~Interview with Anonymous Sex Worker in Dedza,  2022 under a project CHREAA and SALC are currently implementing towards community empowerment against police abuses of power.~

In conclusion

SALC, CHREAA and FSWA call upon the Malawi Police Services and Government to consider police actions from the point of view of those most affected by them. We ask formal complaints bodies, including the Independent Complaints Commission to take equitable actions to create an inclusive enabling environment by looking into the needs of those most vulnerable to police abuse. As the year progresses, we hope that increased dialogue between the police, affected communities, and complaints bodies will result in a situation where vulnerable groups may feel seen, heard, and included in dialogues concerning issues they face and approach the police for protection, instead of fearing violence and arrests from them. Lastly, we stand in solidarity with the sex workers’ community and hope for a future where everyone can work safely with respect, free from fear of prejudice or stigma.