A landmark court ruling in Zimbabwe says police can no longer arrest any woman out on the streets of central Harare after dark on suspicion of being a sex worker simply because they’re out at night.
For years police have arrested women found walking – police say “loitering” – in the busy central business district of the Zimbabwean capital after nightfall, even if they are with their boyfriends or friends.
In some cases, officers in the red light area of the Avenues have rifled through women’s handbags to look for condoms – proof, said the police, they were engaging in sex work.
Other women have been arrested coming home from nightclubs.
A bribe could often set these women free, but those who were too angry, too frightened, or who simply did not have enough cash on them to pay often ended up spending a night or two in police cells. That should now change, says rights lawyer David Hofisi.
This week, Zimbabwe’s constitutional court ruled that nine women picked up for “loitering” in March last year could no longer be prosecuted.
The group, identified in court as “Chipo Nyamanhindi and Eight Others”, had repeatedly been put on remand, the charges hanging over them for more than a year. Soliciting for sex is a crime in Zimbabwe, punishable with a fine or a jail sentence of up to six months.
But the group’s lawyers argued that if no-one could testify that any of the women had approached him offering sex, then no crime had been committed. The full bench of the court, led by Deputy Chief Justice Luke Malaba, agreed.
Mr Hofisi, of Zimbabwe’s Lawyers for Human Rights organisation, called the move “a victory for women’s rights”.
“It’s a wide and ongoing problem for women: being arrested for being found walking around at night, particularly in Harare and the Avenues,” he said. “We will use [the ruling] to make sure women are no longer arrested for just walking at night.”
The ruling has been a long time coming.
Hundreds of women sporting purple protested in 2012 when a particularly vigorous police clampdown netted a number of women who said they were not sex workers.
The police codenamed that operation “Girl Get Married” and said its aim was merely to protect the “image” of Zimbabwean women.
Activists did not agree. Opposition MP Jessie Majome said yesterday: “We want the government and other office-bearers to know that we have rights which are guaranteed and they better change the way they behave.”
But not everyone is happy. The growing number of young sex workers is a sore topic in cash-strapped Zimbabwe, where locals argue endlessly over whether the women are forced into their work or whether they choose to do it.