Background Few studies in Africa provide detailed descriptions of the vulnerabilities of sex workers (SW) to sexual and physical violence perpetrated by police, and how this impacts on their HIV risk. This qualitative study documents SW’s experiences of violence in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe.
Methods Thirty-one SW, aged 18 years and above were recruited through peer sex workers to participate in three focus-group discussions. Focus group discussions were digitally recorded and transcribed verbatim. Using ATLAS. ti software, a set of a priori concept-driven codes were applied to the transcripts. The analysis concentrated on condom possession and use by sex workers, police interactions, experiences of violence, stigma and discrimination perpetrated by the police.
Results Analysis showed the pervasiveness of sexual and physical violence perpetrated by the police towards SW without impunity, commonly triggered by arbitrary arrests of sex workers for solicitation and loitering. Sex workers narrated how police would arrest them for possession of condoms, confiscate and destroy condoms, extort money and bribes from them, force them to have sex with them, beat them with button sticks, drench them with cold water, detain them over nights in fenced enclosures and call them derogatory names. As a result some sex workers resorted to not carrying condoms or throwing away condoms to evade police harassment. Police were reported to profile sex workers and arrest them even when they were not doing sex work. Illegality of trading in sex in Zimbabwe was cited as one factor that underscored violence perpetrated by police.
Conclusions Addressing violence by the police and concomitant HIV risks and vulnerabilities faced by SW should be prioritised by the Zimbabwean government. This study indicates the need for legal reforms to decriminalise sex work and ensure that laws governing sex work promote the health and human rights of sex workers in Zimbabwe.
- Sex worker