Title: New Documentary Shows Harassment and Violence Faced by Sex Workers
Today, AdvocAid and its partners launch “Kolonko,” a documentary in which sex workers talk about their lives. ‘Kolonko’ is the Krio-language term for a sex worker and its derogatory nature reflects the social and economic marginalisation sex workers face. In the documentary, women discuss the sexual, physical, and verbal abuse they endure on a daily basis at the hands of their clients and the police. In interviews with 18 women, they make a plea to the government, the police, and the public: to accept them as citizens who have rights – over their bodies and to be free from violence.
These women and girls, interviewed between 2015 and 2016, depend on sex work for their livelihoods. One of the interviewees told AdvocAid: “I had no-one to take care of me. I had no source of money; that’s why I became a sex worker.” However, sex work often puts women and girls at great risk. One woman working in Lumley recalls being held at knife point by a client. She told AdvocAid: “They [clients] have sex with us and then beat us. When we argue, they take out a knife and say if you talk they will stab you.” Sadly, assaults of this kind were common in the experiences shared with us by the sex workers. Of the 18 women interviewed in the making of “Kolonko,” all reported suffering physical violence, sexual abuse, or theft from clients.
Despite suffering sexual and other forms of violence, sex workers are largely unprotected by the law. Many do not report the crimes committed against them for fear of being arrested themselves. The women we interviewed told us that they are regularly arrested for ill-defined crimes such as ‘loitering’ or ‘frequenting’. The police routinely use these old-fashioned laws to arrest sex workers simply for being outside at night. Arresting sex workers for these minor offences deters them from reporting serious crimes, such as violence, rape, and theft to the police.
The women we interviewed also said the police abuse their power to extort money, and even sex, from women. One woman told us: “if you don’t have sex with them [the police], they will put you in a cell.” Another sex worker, interviewed in Freetown, informed us that “the police treat us like slaves. When they catch us, they beat us, drag us.”
After screening the unedited documentary to the Sierra Leone Police in August 2016, Inspector-General Francis Munu stated that “if the allegations are true then the officers have to improve on their performances.” AdvocAid and its partners encourage the recently-appointed Inspector-General, Dr. Richard Moigbe, to ensure that officers are held accountable for any abuse of sex workers.
“The documentary shows us why laws such as loitering and frequenting should be decriminalised. All too often the police use them to target and abuse vulnerable communities, such as sex workers. Being outside at night should not be a crime,” said Executive Director of AdvocAid, Daniel Eyre.
Instead of treating sex workers as criminals, the police should recognise that many are victims. Any female under the age of 18 involved in sex work is the victim of a crime and should receive protection and assistance, as required by law. Building a relationship of trust with sex workers would enable the police to gather the evidence needed to go after human traffickers and pimps, who are often responsible for forcing women into sex work in the first place.
Criminalising sex work has never stopped it from happening. If the country wants to end sex work, there are alternatives to criminalisation. The focus should be on providing women and girls with alternative livelihoods, including through support from government for greater employment opportunities, and educating the people who purchase sex.
To combat the discrimination faced by sex workers in Sierra Leone, AdvocAid and its partner organisations call on:
- Parliament to decriminalise, or declassify, loitering and frequenting;
- The Police to investigate and prosecute crimes committed against sex workers in Sierra Leone;
- Oversight bodies to engage sex workers so they feel confident to report police abuse. Oversight bodies include the Independent Police Complaints Board (IPCB), the SLP’s Complaint Discipline Internal Investigations Department (CDIID), the Human Rights Commission and the Office of the Ombudsman;
- The Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs to protect children who are engaged in sex work, or who are unsafely exposed to the dangers of sex work; and
- The Government to increase opportunities for employment and education so that women who engage in the industry of sex work are empowered and have viable alternatives to sustain a livelihood.
AdvocAid is thrilled to have collaborated with Amnesty International, AWOD, the Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone, the International Rescue Committee, MOVE-SL, and independent filmmaker, Hazel Chandler, in the making of the documentary.
AdvocAid would also like to thank its current and former staff members involved in the design and production of the documentary including Julie Mariama Sesay, Sonia Osho-Williams, Sia Fatmata Deen, Sabrina Mahtani and Simitie Lavaly.
AdvocAid has a long history of providing legal aid and legal rights training to sex workers. The organisation has documented abuses against sex workers by clients and the police for many years. In 2011, AdvocAid and its partners published a report, titled “Justice for Girls,” which interviewed girls involved in sex work. Several reported being propositioned, or raped, and three girls reported being beaten by the police. The report was produced in conjunction with African Prisons Project, Justice Studio and Defence for Children International. It can be found at the following link: http://advocaidsl.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/AdvocAid-Justice-for-Girls-Report.pdf.
The documentary will be screened on TV next week.
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AdvocAid works with vulnerable girls and women caught up in Sierra Leone’s legal system. Founded in 2006, it is the only organisation in Sierra Leone providing a holistic service including free legal representation, education, welfare and rehabilitation support to women and girls in conflict with the law. AdvocAid works in eight towns across Sierra Leone to ensure women and their children have access to justice, are educated on their legal rights and offered rehabilitation support upon release.
For further information, please contact: Daniel Eyre, via email to email@example.com.