Human Rights groups in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have criticised a controversial directive by the provincial authorities in Kinshansa that has spiked arrests and harassment of sex workers.
The groups led by African Sex Workers Alliance (ASWA), Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) and Congolese Alliance for Human Rights Projects of Sex Work (ACODHU-TS) have called for release of sex workers arrested last month. Reports show that 208 sex workers were arrested during a swoop in Kinshasa.
Last month, the Council of Ministers issued a decree giving the police enforce ‘a moral code’ by arresting any individual ‘displaying immorality’.
The initiative started in September is supposedly to address what authorities call UJANA (Juvenile Delinquency Close to Prostitution) and to prevent ‘moral decay’ within the capital, which sources say include mode of dressing.
UJANA is supposedly to keep minors away from bars, clubs, hotels or any other entertainment joints.
However, activists say police are using the initiative to harass and arbitrarily arrest sex workers for as flimsy reasons as wearing short dresses. In September alone, about 208 sex workers were arrested on unclear changes. Some were released after paying some money to the police, while others still remain in custody.
According to the Congolese Alliance for Human Rights Projects of Sex Work, ACODHU-TS, police have been violently arresting sex workers and undressing women allegedly in short skirts.
The group says the police went as far as recording the violent arrests and circulating the videos on social media platforms.
“The images on WhatsUp published by the police on September,22, 2018 are humiliating and without respect for human rights. We have this film. We noted that 208 sex workers were arrested and humiliated at the police headquarters in Kinshasa,” Aimée Nshombo Furaha, who is the national coordinator of the group.
Besides working to secure the release of the sex workers, the group is working on a long-term strategy to push for decriminalisation.
“We have reports that other district authorities in other areas such as South Kivu and North Kivu are planning to replicate UJANA. We fear this may trigger a countrywide crackdown on sex workers,” she says.
She says instead of harassing and oppressing sex workers, the authorities should ensure equal protection and treatment by law.
“We demand that the government regulate sex work through a law recognising sex work as work through decriminalisation of sex work,” she says.
At the moment, sex work is legal in DRC. However, related activities such as pimping, running a brothel, debauchery and sex slavery are prohibited. Legalisation has, however, not stopped the police from harassing, arresting or exhorting money from sex workers.
ACODHU-TS wants the government to have clears laws that address human trafficking and other human rights violations of all citizens.
“The only way to eliminate clandestine trafficking of teenage girls by pimps is having a proper law to address this problem,” the group says.
It says the authorities should differentiate between sexual exploitation of minors and legitimate sex work by adults.
To address issues facing sex workers in the country, ACODHU TS is seeking to work with allies and partners such as UNAIDS to draw up an advocacy plan and an awareness creation campaign.
One of the advocacy plans is a roundtable meeting with various stakeholders to discuss the legislation of sex work in DR Congo.
Human trafficking in the Democratic Republic of Congo is pervasive and affects men, women and children of all ages. Women and children are often forced into sex slavery and marriages. According to the US State Department, some women are even coerced into sex slavery by family members.
The country does not have an anti-human trafficking law despite the fact that the crime is pervasive.
In addition, political instability has also made it hard to investigate, prosecute, or convict offenders of sex trafficking, as distinct from other sexual crimes, or labour trafficking.
Consequently, human rights organisations are pushing for a legal distinction between legitimate sex work and sexual crimes.