This article is part of a series published by RH Reality Check in partnership with the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) to commemorate the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, December 17th, 2010. It is excerpted from Research For Sex Work 12, published 17 December 2010 by the NSWP, an organization that upholds the voice of sex workers globally and connects regional networks advocating for the rights of female, male, and transgender sex workers. Download the full journal, with eight more articles about sex work and violence, for free at nswp.org. See all articles in this series here.
SWAN (Sex Workers’ Rights Advocacy Network of Central Eastern Europe and Central Asia) is a network of 16 projects and organisations providing services to sex workers in 15 countries. In 2007, SWAN members voted at the annual meeting that police crackdowns and violence were the most pressing issues facing sex workers in the region. As a result, SWAN launched a participatory study to document the situation. Sex workers played a leadership role in creating and administering the study as well as in interpreting the results. This is the first sex worker-led piece of research to document human rights violations against sex workers in Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
Thirteen groups from 12 countries participated in the survey and a total of 238 male, female and transgender sex workers were interviewed between September and December 2007. In May 2009, qualitative data on police crackdowns were collected in Bulgaria, Kyrgyzstan, Serbia, Slovakia and Ukraine. The results of both sets of data were published in a report entitled Arrest the Violence (2009).1
In all countries except Poland and the Czech Republic, sex workers interviewed reported alarmingly high levels of physical and sexual violence from police officers. In certain countries, the recurring themes of police violence described give a strong indication that this is a generalised phenomenon. In the year preceding the survey, some 42 percent of sex workers in the region reported having experienced physical violence by the police and 36 percent having experienced sexual violence (Table 1).
Though the sample is small, it is worth noting that the five transgender sex workers interviewed reported higher levels of police violence than their non-trans peers. All of them, without exception, had been physically and sexually assaulted by police officers. Though the nine male sex workers interviewed reported lower levels of sexual violence from the police than their female peers, they faced higher levels of physical violence. This highlights the importance of further participatory action research on human rights abuses against male and trans sex workers.
Crackdowns, Violence and Extortion
This study found an important link between police crackdowns and violence. Police violence against sex workers was frequently reported to occur in the context of severely repressive actions. In one country for example, four sex workers specified that sexual violence from police
officers occurred ‘every time I was taken to the station’. Sex workers throughout the region are very vulnerable to violence while in police custody. In Bulgaria, one sex worker said: ‘The police take us away and push us into the river.’ In Russia and Ukraine, sex workers shared that policemen frequently gang-raped them. The respondents repeatedly condemned the ‘lawlessness of police’ and shared their experiences of being illegally detained, framed for crimes they did not commit, forced to clean the police station, or outed as sex workers, as gays or as trans.
‘The police beat you up, demand money and will detain you until you pay.’ (Kyrgyzstan)
‘If I do not pay, then they bring a criminal case against me and they shut me in jail.’ (Lithuania)
In Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine, Russia, Lithuania, Serbia and Macedonia, sex workers reported that crackdowns were often part of a larger system of police extortion that is enforced through threats, detention, physical violence and rape. In such a system, police fines and arrests are often unofficial, undocumented and indistinguishable from extortion. In Kyrgyzstan, for example, sex workers reported having to pay off the police every day they worked. In many countries ‘fines’ amount to all the money sex workers have on them, and often include taking their jewelry or phones. This system exists to varying degreesin all of the countries in this study except for Poland and Czech Republic. In most countries, such extortion is underpinned by tremendous violence, as the following quotes show:
‘They beat a fine for prostitution of 1500 Rubles out of me.’ (Russia, Siberia)
‘If you don’t pay the money, the police gang-rape you.’ (Russia, Siberia)
‘If I don’t pay the money, they threaten to beat me up, take my documents away, and force me to have sex.’ (Ukraine)
In Latvia, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine sex workers reported being tested for HIV or STIs against their will after being picked up by the police. They felt that the threat of such testing was an additional tool that was sometimes used by police officers to claim extortion money.
Consequences of Crackdowns
This study found that police violence fuels general violence against sex workers. Fears of police violence, extortion or arrest often push sex workers into hiding and force them to work in isolated areas where they are more vulnerable to general violence and cut-off from support or HIV services. Additionally, sex workers reported that their lack of access to police protection creates a climate of impunity for crimes against them and has made them easy and frequent targets of violent attackers from the general population. This is, in part, reflected in the very high levels of physical and sexual violence respondents in all countries faced from people such as clients, bosses, partners, drunk hooligans, thugs, skinheads, and other passers-by.
Sex workers and key informants also reported that crackdowns sometimes result in homelessness and family separation. This occurs when sex workers cannot afford paying extortion money and have to resort to give up their homes, when they are imprisoned for long periods, deported following a raid or when their family learns of their occupation due to a raid and throws them out. Homelessness due to police crackdowns increases the vulnerability to violence and to HIV for both sex workers and their children.
Police violence and mistreatment severely compromise sex workers’ ability to report violence against them. The most frequent reasons cited across all countries for not reporting violence
to the police were fears of: police mistreatment; being in worse danger (from police or perpetrator); arrest; and being outed to the police. The latter often referred to a fear of being regularly extorted or attacked. Many sex workers cited previous negative experiences or those of colleagues as confirming their fears.
The number of sex workers who said they felt they could report violence to the police is extremely low, with 100 percent of sex workers interviewed in Serbia, Lithuania and Macedonia believing they cannot go to the police and over 50 percent in the other countries, except for North-Western Russia and Poland.
State Policies Condoning Abuse
The human rights abuses committed by the police against sex workers in the countries studied cannot be dismissed as simply the acts of dishonest officers, but are rightly considered manifestations of state policies that tolerate, and in some cases even encourage, violence against sex workers. Acts of physical and sexual assault are serious crimes under the domestic laws of the countries in which research was conducted and, when committed by agents of the state, also amount to violations of international law. These include violations of the rights to security of the person and respect for the inherent dignity of each human being, and the right to be free from torture and other cruel and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
A consistent pattern of state failure to punish or otherwise hold accountable police officers who commit violence against sex workers amounts to a policy – whether explicit or implicit – of tolerance for such abuses. In some cases, state policy appears intentionally designed to harm sex workers, as when police are instructed to use harsh measures to clear sex workers from a given area.2 In addition, antiprostitution laws and policies that criminalise, penalise or otherwise stigmatise sex workers facilitate human rights abuses against sex workers by creating excuses for officials to control and punish sex workers.
This study was conducted in 12 countries but the statistics reflect only eleven. Due to safety concerns, we had to remove the data from one country. Following public statements by sex workers denouncing violence, members of the local SWAN group administering the survey received death threats and faced the possibility of the government closing down their centre and seizing confidential medical records. The data from this country paints a stark portrait of generalised routine sexual and physical violence by law enforcement officers associated with crackdowns. This experience and the data illustrate why the need to support sex workers in
combating violence by state actors is so urgent. We dedicate this article to the twenty sex workers in that country who risked so much to tell their story.
1 SWAN (2009). Arrest the Violence. Human rights abuses against sex workers In Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Sex Workers’ Rights Advocacy Network, www.swannet.org
2 See, for instance, the case of a 2009 police cleansing operation in Bulgaria, described in Arrest the Violence in the section on Physical and Sexual Violence