Sex workers in Zambia have been in the spotlight this week as both religious leaders and a non-governmental organisation weighed in to the debate on how the police deal with sex work in the country.
The Zambian Inspector General of Police announced recently that the police would be stepping up arrests, responding to a directive from a Lusaka Province Minister. The Zambia Episcopal Conference then asked the government to look at ‘rehabilitation’ programmes as an alternative to arrest and prosecution. The ZEC secretary-general stated in the Zambia Daily Mail on Saturday that as most women engaged in sex work to make money to look after their families and ‘the government must intervene with empowerment measures that will see them through.’
One such ‘rehabilitation’ provider, Tasintha, who say they have been ‘successfully transforming the lives of sex workers since 1992’, also favours more rehabilitation programmes. Sex workers in Zambia continue to call for the decriminalisation of sex work, however Tasintha programmes officer, Lucy Bwayla, stated in another article in the Zambia Daily Mail that ‘Zambia is a Christian nation and legalising prostitution will be in conflict with Christian beliefs.’
Sex workers in Lusaka have responded to the threat of increased arrests. Some have pointed out that they did not understand how the decision was made, saying such a step required extensive consultation with stakeholders. One sex worker, quoted in the Lusaka Times said removing sex workers from the street was unfair as they had not broken any law. She said ‘we are not inconveniencing members of the public. It’s just a sexual service.’
This is illustrative of the prejudice, discrimination and denial of their human rights that sex workers face every day. The kind of ‘empowerment’ and ‘transformation’ on offer here is enforced rehabilitation aimed at forcing women to give up sex work or face jail as an alternative. Clearly NGO’s who believe sex work is in total conflict with their religious beliefs are inappropriate providers of programmes for sex workers. Access to these sorts of programmes (claiming to offer economic empowerment) is more often than not conditional on agreeing to leave sex work.
NSWP vociferously opposes the criminalisation of sex work and enforced rehabilitation. True economic empowerment models recognise sex work as work and include assistance for sex workers in savings, credit, education and training. Economic empowerment activities can strengthen the capacity of organisations led by sex workers to improve economic and social conditions for all sex workers.