"Decriminalise consensual adult sex work!" - Human Rights Watch tells Tanzania

Tanzania should decriminalise consensual adult sex work by removing or modifying article 176(a) of the Tanzania Penal Code and 181(a) of the Zanzibar Penal Code, which criminalises sex work, as well as other laws related to sex work that may infringe on human rights, including laws on “harbouring prostitutes” and “living off the earnings of prostitution,” Human Rights Watch has said in a July 18 report.

The report, “Treat Us Like Human Beings” is a compilation by Human Rights Watch under the assistance of the Population Services International ( PSI) and  Wake-Up and Step Forward Coalition (WASO) in Dar es Salaam, Zanzibar, Tanga, Arusha, and Mwanza regions between May, 2012 and April, 2013. It highlights Tanzania as a place where rights of sex workers, drug abusers as well as gay people and lesbians are grossly violated.

The 37,242-word report which documents human rights violations experienced by sex workers, people who use drugs, lesbian, gays, bisexual, transgender and intersex people (LGBTI), including men who have sex with other men (MSM) places the police and the militia -- such as Sungusungu and health service providers -- at the centre of the accusations.

‘Although sex work is illegal in Tanzania, it takes place openly in many cities and towns, with sex workers gathering at well-known locations. While they are occasionally prosecuted and serve prison sentences, sex workers are often simply beaten or raped by police and then return to the streets,’ the report said.

A recent World Bank-funded study describes “addressing violence, stigma and discrimination against sex workers” as “a human rights imperative.” According to the study,

Criminalisation enables police to perpetrate abuse and humiliation, demand free sexual services, and extort fines from sex workers with impunity, and renders those who suffer violence and other human rights abuses with little legal recourse…. By driving sex work underground, criminalisation is also counterproductive to community mobilisation efforts to strengthen sex workers rights and promote autonomy.

HRW reports that, ‘These impacts of criminalisation are manifest in Tanzania. Sex workers who suffer violence, at the hands of both police and civilians, rarely report the crimes against them. A National AIDS Control Programme study of sex workers in Dar es Salaam found that 33.3 percent reported being beaten by their clients.A representative of an international public health organisation in Mwanza explained, “Sex workers do not have a place to speak against injustices done to them, and the police can take advantage of them if they go and report. If they go to the police, the police just become their customers for that night.”

Both adults and children engaged in sex work are regularly forced into sex without condoms, including by police officers. As a sex worker in a small mining village put it: “Some men have knives, and if you want to use a condom, they threaten to kill you. This happened to me here in Itumbi. I decided to have sex without a condom because I was afraid. All the men here carry knives.”

In Dar es Salaam, while NACP found high levels of reported condom use among sex workers, it also found that “the high prevalence of sexual and physical abuse by partners indicates that FSWs [female sex workers] may not be able to make protective choices.”

Many sex workers mistrust public hospitals, where they risk being refused service or stigmatised, as seen below. NACP found that while most female sex workers in their study had been tested at least once for HIV, “Access to services and HIV testing were not as routine or frequent as is recommended for members of high-risk groups.”’

HRW further called on Tanzania to start the process of decriminalising sex work. This and a raft of other recommendations are contained in the report. Some of the recommendations include:

·       Publicly call for an end to police abuse against sex workers, people who use drugs, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex people.

·       Issue orders to health workers that discrimination against members of marginalised groups, including sex workers, people who use drugs, and LGBTI people, will not be tolerated.

·       Begin the process of decriminalising consensual adult sex work by drafting a bill to modify or remove article 176(a) of the Tanzania Penal Code and 181(a) of the Zanzibar Penal Code, which criminalise sex work, as well as other laws related to sex work that may infringe on human rights, including laws on “harbouring prostitutes” and “living off the earnings of prostitution.”

·       In line with the recommendations set forth by Tanzania’s Second National Multi-sectoral Strategic Framework on HIV/AIDS, publicly call for the decriminalisation of consensual adult sex work.

·       Take specific steps to protect the rights of adult sex workers, including by establishing partnerships with organisations representing them.

·       Issue orders to all police that no crime victim should be denied assistance, arrested, or harassed on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity, or their status as a sex worker or drug user. Publicly announce that members of at-risk populations can report crimes without facing the risk of arrest.


Further reading:

The HRW Press release of the report.

The section on sex work of the report