Gender Activists Celebrate Landmark Ruling On Sex Workers

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Women’s rights activists yesterday welcomed the ruling by the Constitutional Court barring police from arresting women on suspicion of soliciting for paid sex without a man to confirm that such solicitation took place.The landmark ruling came after nine women argued that their right to personal liberty guaranteed in section 49 of the Constitution and their right to equal protection and benefit of the law under Section 56 (1) of the constitution was violated after their arrest in Harare last year on allegations that they were soliciting for prostitution.

MDC-T MP and women’s rights activist, Jessie Majome

MDC-T MP and women’s rights activist, Jessie Majome

MDC-T MP and women’s rights activist, Jessie Majome said it was about time there was a correction of this gender bias. She added that prostitution was not an offence, but soliciting was. “It’s absurd that police chose to ignore that law. The law didn’t specify that any female should be arrested, but everyone who will be found soliciting, but police were oblivious to that fact,” she said.

Section 81 (2) of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act reads:

“Any person who publicly solicits another person for the purposes of prostitution shall be guilty of an offence of soliciting and liable to a fine not exceeding level five or imprisonment for a period not exceeding six months or both.”

According to Majome this reinforces what famous British feminist Mary Wollstonecraft said that “The law sees and treats women the way men sees and treats women.”

The MP blamed law enforcement agents saying they always enforced the law with a gender bias.

“The law enforcement agencies only believe that it’s only women who can solicit and they leave the men alone,” she said. “They see men soliciting, but they do nothing about it. I’ve never heard of a man who was arrested for soliciting.”

Majome said the ambiguity of the law was giving the police the excuse to act discriminatorily against women.

She said most of the implementation of the constitution in not by law, but it was by attitude and “we want the government and other duty bearers to know that women have rights which are guaranteed and they better change the way they behave.”

Women’s Action Group (WAG), director Edinah Masiyiwa whose organisation was formed soon after an operation in 1983, which saw quite a large number of women rounded up for alleged prostitution, said even though this ruling has came 32 years later it’s a cause for a celebration.

“I’m told during this operation women were taken to Chikurubi and some were sent to what was then referred to as minda mirefu (resettlement areas). We’ve always advocated against these arrests. I remember when this organisation was formed we had posters that read: ‘Chihure chacho vanoita nani/Bafeba lobani?’” she said.

“This judgment recognises that women have rights too and all along their freedom of movement and women rights were being trampled on.”

Police have over the years launched a number of operations which targeted women suspected to be prostitutes. One in Karoi was code-named Operation Chipo Chiroorwa (get married Chipo and stop being a prostitute).

Ziphongezipho Ndebele, a programmes officer with Padare/Enkundleni Men’s Forum said the law was being applied unjustly and yesterday’s ruling was a milestone in righting a wrong and putting a stop to stigmatisation of women.

“Women were now afraid of staying out late in town lest they would be arrested. The fact that women were arrested even though the police didn’t have 100 percent proof through seeing them in the act was impeding on their constitutional right,” he said.

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