Badge of impunity: training police on sex workers’ rights in Malawi

Sex worker Chifundo has been raped five times by police officers in the past, different officers each time. Local organisation Pakachere is working hard to change this ‘badge of impunity’ culture. 

<p>A Malawi police officer displays his handcuffs</p>In Malawi, police officers are being trained on the human rights of sex workers © Gemma Taylor/International HIV/AIDS Alliance

“Last night an officer stormed into my room,” says Chifundo*, 23. “He didn’t have money, but he wanted ‘a short time’, saying, ‘don’t deny me, I’m a policeman, I can do whatever I want.’ I refused him so he arrested me.”

Chifundo says it is more likely to happen at the end of the month when officers are waiting for their next paycheck, as though they see it as their right to demand a ‘freebie’. She has been taken to a cell before, but this time they got as far as the gas station and the officer let her out. 

Chifundo doesn’t know why the officer let her out of the car, but it may have something to do with the work of Pakachere Institute of Health and Development Communication, a Malawian organisation supported by the International HIV/AIDS Alliance. Female sex workers frequently face police harassment, but Pakachere is working with the police to address these human rights abuses, and things are slowly improving.

Training Malawi police and judiciary

“There are no complaints of officers harassing sex workers, or any cases against them,” says Wezzie Mgala, a police officer from Mchinji Police Station, Malawi.

Down at the station, Mgala, says Mchinji officers know that women and girls are no longer to be arrested on account of being sex workers, and he encourages them to come forward and report any crimes against them. “If sex workers are beaten, we would act as we would anyone else. Or if someone breaks into their home for sex, forces entry, we can treat that as theft.”

The latter may be difficult to prove as there would be no sign of forced entry. The accommodation blocks that Chifundo shares with up to 30 other women are severely dilapidated, some with no closing doors and in any case they’re left open, so that punters can walk in and scribble down the woman’s phone number from off the wall inside if they’re not home.

Still, Mgala’s principle and sentiment is progress, as according to Chisomo Mdima, an outreach worker with Pakachere, police have not been receptive to sex workers’ complaints in the past. “If sex workers reported harassment or crimes to the police, they used to say, ‘go back, it’s your job, your choice’,” she said. The lack of police support, and the worrying personal testimonies of rape and violence, was what spurred on Pakachere to run training for the police force.

Police training must reach entire force

Since 2012, Pakachere has been running regular training for police officers, the judiciary and health care staff on policies and laws that affect female sex workers. Each training involves up to 40 participants and the training has taken place across 13 districts.

“We learnt that we should treat them as human beings not as sex workers,” says Mgala. He also states that as well as treating sex workers the same as everyone else, if an officer committed a crime, they would also be treated even-handedly. Does that mean an officer could be prosecuted? “Yes,” he says, “if there was evidence, and a crime can be proven, then yes.” He would welcome the training on an ongoing basis so that all new recruits receive the same information.

Chifundo says she’s aware of some good officers, but clearly the training, and Mgala’s human-rights based message, is yet to reach the whole force. One time she says three officers drove her to the woods, all forced themselves on her and then left her there to walk back. There’s no recorded cases on officers, because the fear of approaching the police station when your attackers work there is too great. She managed to refuse the officer last night, but the most recent attack before that was just two weeks ago.

Living with HIV

Chifundo turns to friends, her sister, boyfriend, as well as health workers for support. “I know where to go, there’s a specific person I feel comfortable with at the hospital,” she says.

She’s been with her partner for over two years and they have a daughter together, Mavis* who is 16 months old. Her partner lives with his parents while he finishes education, their daughter lives with Chifundo. The couple are both living with HIV, and are receiving treatment, after being referred to health workers by Pakachere, and Mavis’ was born HIV-free.

Chifundo says: “I keep in touch with family. I have told my oldest sister about my HIV status, but not anyone else. My sister tells me to follow what I get told at the hospital, and that lots of people are taking ARVS [antiretroviral medication] and living normal lives, so not to feel frightened about it.”

Hopes for the future

Chifundo would like for Mavis to be able to go to school when she’s older. Mgala echoes that sentiment, he also thinks sex workers’ children should be in school, and that the mothers should find alternative work. Chifundo didn’t complete school. “I was 17 when I first sold sex,” she says. “When my father died it was one problem after another. I lived at home but I’d go out to the bar and bring back what I earned to support the family. It was painful of course, but my family is so poor, there wasn’t anything else I could have done.”

Six years on, she’s tried finding different work, but believes the reputation that follows you around in a small town, is why she’s been unsuccessful. “There are some girls who finished school but it is still difficult to get a job.” She would like to see employers and organisations trained. “So that we get fair interviews,” she says.

“I say to the police - we come here because of our own problems at home, we have kids, we have relatives to support - you come here and force yourselves on us, you don’t pay, and whenever we have money you take it - so how are we to support our families or go to school when you keep on doing this?” Chifundo says. "Health workers and police should treat us like any other normal person, not stigmatise us, but treat us like they would treat their own kid.”

Pakachere is pleased to have police officers like Mgala to work with in Mchinji who are committed to tackling these issues. It demonstrates the success of the trainings carried out so far, though clearly more are needed. As long as funding continues, Pakachere will continue the trainings as part of a wider strategy to reduce stigma and discrimination towards sex workers’ and ensure their rights are protected.

*Names have been changed