The deadly link between police, sex work and HIV

Date: December 7, 2010
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In a country known for its skyrocketing HIV and AIDS rates, conservatism, Christianity and traditional mores, it may come as a surprise that the abuse and rape of sex workers in Swaziland at the hands of police is a growing and widespread problem.

Sex work, known as one of the oldest trades, is still illegal in the country, yet sex workers have reported targeted campaigns of rape and violence at the hands of Swazi police.

One well known investigator is notorious to sex workers in the capital, Mbabane.

“He attacks us at our hotspot,” said Phumzile Mamba*, a 20-year-old sex worker. “He threatens us with a gun so that we do not run away. He then rapes us, after he is done, he lets his boys rape us while he watches, and we cannot report this to the police.”

Sex work in Swaziland is not confined to urban areas, but also common in rural areas, where patterns of abuse are often less evident.

A recent report by Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse (SWAAGA), in partnership with other local organisations, noted: “It is not just that they are arrested, to a greater or lesser degree they are forced by police to comply with demands for free sex or sex in exchange for not being arrested. 27% of the sex workers have at some point been arrested by state police for loitering. 60% of those arrested end up being sexually and physically abused by the police.”

The study involved 150 sex workers, both female and male, from urban and rural communities.

In an attempt to intensify the fight against HIV and AIDS, several local organisations, including SWAAGA, have called for the decriminalisation of sex work in the country. They argue that the decriminalisation of sex work would enable their organisations and other partners to reach those involved in the illegal trade.

The National Strategic Framework for HIV and AIDS (NFS) identifies commercial sex as one of the key drivers of HIV and AIDS in Swaziland.

“Sex work is often characterised by high rates of partner change, low rates of condom use, unsafe sex and high rates of sexually transmitted infections. Consequently, HIV infection is often high and the virus can quickly spread through sexual networks encompassing sex workers, clients, regular partners and associated lovers,” states one NFS report.

Over the past several years, Swaziland has recorded one of the highest HIV prevalence rates in the world. Data from the country’s 11th National Sero-Surveillance Report indicates that HIV prevalence increased from 39 to 42% between 2006 and 2008.

The Swaziland Demographic and Health Survey estimated the prevalence among the population between 15-49 years to be at 26%. This means that for every four Swazis in the reproductive age, one is HIV positive.

In such a climate, sex workers have become a vital link in HIV prevention in the country.

Another recent study, the 2010 United Nations Assembly Special Session on HIV and AIDS (UNGASS) found that Swaziland’s sex workers are being pressured by clients not to use condoms. These clients often pay more money, something sex workers may find hard to turn down.

Sex workers are put at greater risk of contracting HIV, and the client then likely goes home to a wife, who is also put at risk.

Many times that “client” is a police officer.

Because sex work is criminalised, law enforcers often overlook that sex workers can be victims of crime, and street-based workers in particular experience high levels of assault and rape.

Yet Police Public Relations Officer Superintendent Wendy Hleta said the police have no knowledge of sex workers in the country because their trade is illegal.

However, she said in cases where they have been abused or violated by police or individuals, such cases should be reported.

“We have competent officers, both female and male, who can listen to their concerns even when it means being heard in private. We encourage them to come forward and report such violations,” she said.

However, because their trade is illegal, sex workers rarely avail themselves of such services.

Zanele Dlamini*, a sex worker from Ezulwini said: “Even if I have a simple cold I don’t go to Lobamba Clinic, everybody knows that I am a sex worker. Although the nurses don’t voice it directly at you, they act funny and make silly comments about you.”

Poverty and unemployment remain the major forces pushing young Swazis into sex work.

Xoliswa Sithole*, a 24-year-old sex worker from Gundvwini said: “I looked for a job at the textile factories for five months and I got tired of “facing” (waiting outside the factory gates before being employed) there. My friends suggested that we try selling sex at Matsapha. At first I was afraid but I have now learnt the trade. I have a room at Matsapha and go home on weekends. At least I can afford food and pay for my children’s school fees. My family thinks I am working at the textile factories.”

Until sex work is recognised and decriminalised in the country, desperate Swazi mothers like Sithole will continue to be raped and abused at the hands of police and other violent men. And as long as this happens the HIV prevalence rate for the entire country will only continue to rise.

*Not their real names

Alec Lushaba is the editor of the Swazi Observer. This article is part of a special series on the 16 Days of Activism for the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that offers fresh views on everyday news. For more information on the 16 Days Campaign go to


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