In a country that has one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world, sex workers are regarded as the people most at risk of contracting the virus, but Pretty (not her real name) insists that police officers are her worst nightmare and threaten her livelihood.
Pretty says when police arrest them, the officers routinely demand bribes and openly ask for sex from the ladies of the night if they are to be freed.
“Sometimes they force us to roll on the ground and in the process they will be pouring water all over our bodies,” Pretty says. “If you do not have money to pay a bribe then you will be in trouble.”
With July having particularly been a cold month, she says she felt this treatment was not only harsh and unfair but was also demeaning and uncalled for.
Despite prostitution being illegal, Pretty believes that the police are heavy handed, saying ladies of the night also deserved to be treated humanely.
“If you do not have money to pay the bribe or you decline police officers’ sexual advances, you are imprisoned without trial for as much as four days,” she said. “During this period you will not be given any food.”
The law states that an alleged criminal can only be detained for a maximum of two days before being taken to court. The police can, however, detain someone for longer if they receive permission from the courts and if there is evidence that further investigation is needed.
Pretty, a mother of three, narrated the ordeal of some of her “colleagues” whom she claims were raped but when they reported their cases to the police the issues would be dismissed in an off handed manner with the law officers curtly quipping that “have you ever seen a prostitute being raped”.
Another sex worker, Joyce (not her real name) narrated her ordeal, claiming she had been arrested while alighting from a bus from Botswana, her crime that she was a known lady of the night.
“I was told that since I was a sex worker and I was out during the evening it meant that I could be only up to one thing,” she said.
Hours later, Joyce says she was released after being tossed from one officer to another as she pleaded her innocence, with her passport, bearing an immigration stamp, being her alibi.
Both women said ladies of the night had both deep seated fear and loathing for police officers whom they accused of being overzealous, heavy handed and abusive of them.
The two are peer advisors at a sex workers drop-in centre in Bulawayo, which handles about 15 ladies of the night daily. It is one of 16 centres dotted around the country.
They said they knew what they did was illegal but that did not mean that would stop their trade, rather they said authorities should control prostitution by legalising it and giving permits to sex workers.
An official at the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR), Tawanda Mundawara confirmed receiving reports of the abuse advising that sex workers had rights too and these had to be observed.
“They should not be criminalised and secondly they deserve to be treated with dignity,” Mundawara, a programmes manager dealing with HIV at the lawyers body, said.
He said they had received numerous reports from sex workers who accused the police of abuse, saying the advocacy body will continue representing women who were abused.
Mundawarara said, worryingly, a number of women had been arrested for being out at night on the accusations that they were sex workers.
“Effectively what the police are saying is that this country has a curfew for women beyond a certain hour,” he said.
Recently the ZLHR issued a statement, raising concern on the number of reports of police harassing women who would have been arrested for loitering.
“The violation of women and sexual assaults perpetrated by members of the police is barbaric, brutal and at cross purposes with the Service Charter of the Zimbabwe Republic Police,” reads the statement.
“It is wrong for male police officers to detain women arrested for alleged loitering in their cars and drive with them around the city for purposes of psychological torture before soliciting for sex as a precondition for their release.”
Experts argue that criminalising sex work meant these women became more mobile, were hard to reach and this could hamper the efforts to combat HIV.
They say the criminalisation of the profession meant that the women found it difficult to access medical services.
But police spokesman, Andrew Phiri says they have not received cases of sex workers being abused in such a manner adding that they could seek justice if they felt mistreated.
“If it is true that they are detained for more that the stipulated time then they should make a report to the officer in charge of the police station or at another station,” he said.
Phiri said in the cases of abuse the women also had a right to report to higher authorities as pouring water on the sex workers, demanding sex and bribes were illegal.
He said they faced problems from repeat offenders and these were usually taken to court.