Hands Off - Effectively reducing violence against sex workers

Hands Off - Effectively reducing violence against sex workers

Sex work is criminalised in South Africa, which contributes to violence against sex workers. Criminalising laws stigmatise sex workers and negatively influence social norms and values on sex work. As a result, sex workers face high levels of violence by police, who often believe that violence and abuse are socially justified. Continue reading to learn how sex worker-led organisation Sisonke, SWEAT (Sex workers Advocacy Taskforce), the Asijiki coalition, SAPS (South African Police Service), and COC Netherlands worked together, taking a participatory approach, to reduce violence against sex workers. 

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Sex workers were closely involved in the design, implementation and evaluation of the Hands Off programme. At the start, a Theory of Change workshop was held with all partners. As such, the programme was developed with sex worker-led organisations and service providers. Moreover, in order to better identify gaps and challenges in South Africa, a participatory qualitative and quantitative needs assessment amongst 519 sex workers was conducted. As well as a qualitative needs assessment amongst SAPS officers. Finally, various South African scholars specialised in human rights, sexuality and gender, policing, lawyers and criminal justice, completed a context analysis for the programme.

Sex workers Sex workers

The main activities were

  • Conduct a participatory needs assessment. Sex workers were trained as research assistants, and identified different forms of violence by police strengthening the evidence base. 
  • Set up a community-led rapid response system, increasing sex workers’ access to legal support and justice. The paralegals provided rights literacy trainings and made sex workers aware of their own rights, escorted them to police stations to report a case, and supported them in finding justice. This also helped to develop a sex worker movement with strong rights awareness.
  • Advocate for policy and legal reform. A coalition for decriminalisation consisting of 105 organisations and 150 individual members was set up, which advocated and lobbied for the decriminalisation of sex work in South Africa. 
  • Develop a training manual for SAPS at national level. The manual was written in a participatory way with police, key populations, and experts who shared material and experiences. The manual appealed to police’s interests, for example by pointing out safety and health benefits for the police service, as well as the public health benefits of protecting the health and human rights of key populations. LGBTQ+ and PWUD were added to the manual, which prevented duplication of efforts and led to a more efficient and effective process. Lastly, police champions were used to increase buy-in and transfer knowledge to other officers. The trainers were both SAPS and key populations, which meant they could share experiences during trainings to create mutual understanding and changed attitude towards each other.
  • Foster police accountability at local and national level. The Positive Policing Partnership (PPP) was set up, involving key population organisations and the SAPS. The PPP’s mandate is to establish collaborations between civil society and police, and to keep the police accountable.
  • SWEAT South Africa buildt relationships with the police at community level to speed up the process of gaining buy-in and affecting change.

    Intensive relationship building took place to get buy-in from SAPS and generate an internal lobby. Lobbying and advocating for change within police was crucial.

Results of Hands Off! work

The Hands Off end evaluation found a better environment and less violence towards sex workers at places with sensitised police. Not only has police violence reduced but sex workers also feel more protected and confident to prevent violence. The evaluation showed that where effective police engagement took place and rights literacy of sex workers was increased, police protection services for sex workers had improved and sex workers reported being more able to report cases to the police and resist police abuse. This is an empowered sex workers community that is aware of their rights. 

Police Police

“Support of sex workers outside court and […] inside court gives so much courage to challenge the law on their rights... People report the violence now.”

– Sex worker, South Africa

By 2018, Hands Off trained twenty-eight police officers as trainers, who trained over 400 police officers on the contents of the manual.56, 57 SAPS has recognised its role in South Africa’s public health approach. The endorsement of the training by high level brigadiers and major generals has led to the embedding of the training in the Global Fund 2019-2021 grant and in the curricula of police in-service training. As a result, 153,000 SAPS operational officers will undergo training under the SAPS in-service training.58 Standardising and registering of the manual in police systems will guarantee competency-based training and ensure that the training is part of performance management systems. This is a major achievement for sustainability and scale. Some district police stations even included the Dignity, Diversity and Policing training in their yearly plans and allocated funds on their own accord. 

The end evaluation further showed a transformation in police attitude. This has resulted in a turnaround from police as major perpetrators, to police as recourse to justice in case of client or public abuse. Additionally, within SAPS, an increasingly open and supportive environment is emerging to respect sexual diversity and dignity of sex workers, as well as, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender & Intersex (LGBTI) people and PWUD. During training sessions and meetings police officers disclosed their sexual orientation and gender identity, showing an increased openness and shift in attitude.

Sex worker Sex worker

“They won’t lock us up anymore. They won’t swear at us anymore… they actually do respect sex workers now when they see you in the street.”

 – Sex worker, South Africa

Finally, as a result of our lobby for decriminalisation of sex work, high ranking officials speaking for decriminalisation of sex work. Deputy Police Minister Bongani Mkhongi says: 

“South Africa has lots of crime, very heavy crime. Rather than us raiding people and taking condoms as evidence to court, we are tired of this thing, so we must change the law. And the President, who was deputy president then, we’ve raised this issue with him.”

Read more about 8 Days for Gender Equality

For 8 days, from Zero Discrimination Day (1 March) to International Women's Day (8 March), Aidsfonds raised awareness for gender equality with our ​8 Days for Gender Equality Campaign. Each day we covered strategic action that can be taken against gender inequality fueling the AIDS epidemic. We invite everyone to help spread awareness. Join the movement on Twitter by sharing your own experience and approaches on gender equality and HIV using the hashtag #GenderEqualityandHIV. 

Aidsfonds' renewed Big Picture (2020) is out now! Access the full guide on how to develop a gender transformative approach in HIV programming, filled with approaches, exercises, case studies and loads more. Download guide


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