Social Innovation Narrative

Policing of sex work in South Africa: The positive policing partnership approach

Donna M. Evans*, Marlise L. Richter,, Munyaradazi I. Katumba


All aspects of sex work are criminalized in South Africa. Due to their marginalized position in society, sex workers are often the target of police violence and human rights violations, all of which have far-reaching implications for public health. Existing complaint mechanisms and police oversight structures rarely ensure accountability for sex worker human rights violations. In 2016, various sex work sector stakeholders and allied civil society members partnered in a collaborative project to document the operational policing challenges and record a contemporary evidence base of sex worker rights violations by law enforcement. The findings demonstrated that violation of sex worker human rights is systemic, pervasive, and entrenched. The project approach helped catalyze a move away from more traditionally adversarial approaches, with stakeholders from the South African sex work sector forming the Positive Policing Partnership (PPP) as an advocacy vehicle to drive positive, solution-focused engagement on the operational policing challenges. The PPP focuses on collaboration, innovative partnerships, and capacity building. Concurrently, the COC Netherlands Dignity, Diversity and Policing project has successfully embedded a rights-based police training curriculum in partnership with the South African Police Service (SAPS). These projects employ different strategies and frameworks to catalyze positive change and to support effective engagement between the sex work sector, law enforcement, and government. This article provides a snapshot of the formation, activities and progress of these projects to date, teamed with a summary of key strategies and learnings.

Key Words: Prostitution, law enforcement, capacity building, operational policing, vulnerable population groups, community-based organizations (CSOs), human rights


Scope of Sex Worker Rights Violations by Law Enforcement

South African law criminalizes all aspects of sex work (Sexual Offences Act, 1957; Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act, 2007). Public by-laws and regulations criminalizing “loitering” and “public nuisance” further expose sex workers to wide-ranging policing powers (Gould & Fick, 2008; UNDP Global Commission, 2012, 36–37). The literature describes the impact of the criminal law and its enforcement on sex worker health, safety, and human rights during interrogation, arrest, and detention. This includes unlawful arrest and detention (Fick, 2006a; Fick, 2006b; Scorgie et al., 2013; Rangasami, Konstant & Manoek, 2016; Human Rights Watch & SWEAT, 2019), corruption through taking bribes and demanding sex to avoid arrest (Fick, 2006a; Fick, 2006b; Newham & Faull, 2011; Manoek, 2012; Human Rights Watch & SWEAT, 2019), torture (Evans & Walker, 2018), sexual assault and rape (Fick, 2006b; Gould & Fick, 2008; Scorgie et al., 2013), and assault by law enforcement (Gould & Fick, 2008; Manoek, 2012; Rangasami et al., 2016; Evans & Walker, 2018). Sex workers’ fear of engagement with law enforcement officers extends to the reporting of crimes against them and others. Sex workers have reported that police officers refuse to believe them when they attempt to report crimes including rape and assault (Pauw & Brener, 2003; Fick, 2006a; Scorgie et al., 2013; Evans & Walker, 2018; Human Rights Watch & SWEAT, 2019).

Civil Society Advocacy Strategies

Over the last 20 years, civil society organizations (CSOs) working on sex worker human rights have utilized various strategies to highlight and address these human rights challenges. The Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) ( was established in 1991 to advocate for the rights of sex workers, while sex workers formed the Sisonke Sex Worker National Movement in 2003 (Sisonke, A Case Study of Sex Worker Movement Building in South Africa, 2016). They’ve worked with litigation organizations, such the Women’s Legal Centre (WLC), to bring legal challenges against the South African Police Service (SAPS) and other government departments for human rights violations. In 2009, the WLC, on behalf of SWEAT, challenged the police practice of arresting sex workers, keeping them detained without charges, and releasing them in the Cape Metropole. In the case of SWEAT v The Minister of Safety & Security & 7 Others (2009), the judge instructed the police to stop their harassment of sex workers.

In 2012, a complaint of ongoing law enforcement violations was lodged with the Commission for Gender Equality (CGE), requesting systemic interventions to remedy the situation. The CGE’s recommendations included that SAPS convene sex work sensitization workshops with the assistance of CSOs to train its Station Commanders on the rights of sex workers and to refrain from human rights violations; that the National Commissioner of SAPS instruct all members to immediately cease arresting, harassing or following outreach workers for carrying out their work, and to stop confiscating condoms from sex workers. While some police training has been provided by the CGE (personal communication between CGE Director of Legal Services and Dr. Marlise Richter, 18 June 2019), as at August 2018, the CGE reported the SAPS National Commissioner had failed to adequately respond to the recommendations (CGE Head of Legal Services Marissa Van Niekerk presentation at PPP Conference, 14 August 2018, Johannesburg).

Over the years, various research reports (Manoek, 2012; Rangasami et al., 2016; Evans & Walker, 2018; Human Rights Watch & SWEAT, 2019), petitions, and memoranda to government departments have been lodged, but they have seldom received a response. In addition, the WLC and SWEAT formed a Human Rights Defender Project called “Every Sex Worker A Human Rights Defender,” where sex worker peer educators train their colleagues about their rights and provide appropriate referrals. Civil society organizations have also conducted training workshops with police officers to provide contextual analysis and background to sex work and the rights and duties of sex workers and police. Regrettably, these strategies have had limited impact on operational policing behaviours to date.


PPP Formation

In 2016, Sonke Gender Justice (Sonke), a CSO working in partnership with SWEAT and the Sisonke Sex Worker Movement, commissioned a research report on sex work and contemporary policing in South Africa. The report described the policing experiences of 120 sex workers (Evans & Walker, 2018). A sample of the raw data was published by Sonke in an interim consultation format (Evans, 2017), and a range of South African academics, policing and security experts, CSOs, and government agencies were interviewed to obtain multi-perspective expert input on the framing of the final report (Evans & Walker, 2018).

This strategy of proactive invitation to participate in framing the research report findings, recommendations, and remedial approaches helped establish a crucial initial tone of solution-focused engagement, inclusion, capacity building, and multi-faceted approaches to address the documented human rights violations. Stakeholders from Sonke, SWEAT, and Sisonke met in August 2017 for a strategic planning workshop to discuss the interim report findings, consultation recommendations, and sector advocacy approach on policing issues. Three primary questions were posed:

A collective decision was made to move away from the more traditional adversarial complaint-based advocacy and to form the Positive Policing Partnership (PPP) group as a sector vehicle to drive a more collaborative, inclusive, and solution-focused model of engagement. The PPP approach focuses on active capacitation of the sex work sector, civil society, government, and law enforcement to work together more effectively on improving policing outcomes for sex workers. The approach involves three distinct strategies:

PPP Capacity Development

Whilst the PPP membership has expanded to include other civil society representatives from the sex work sector, health sector, civil society, and international NGOs, such as COC Netherlands and Amnesty International South Africa, the approach is still in the inception stage of addressing governance and secretariat frameworks, funding, and resourcing aspects of the model. In the meantime, it continues to develop capacity and presence in the advocacy space, including convening PPP conferences in 2018 and 2019, and targeted advocacy events focused on cooperative problem solving through multidisciplinary approaches to the challenges. The PPP recently convened a national strategic positive policing roundtable consultation event with sector, academic experts, and policing representatives in Cape Town and published the report Positive Policing Practices and Sex Work, Proceedings of a Roundtable Discussion May 2019 (Sonke, 2019).

Key PPP Activities

Ongoing Engagement with Law Enforcement, Government and Police Oversight Authorities at National and Provincial Levels

From late 2016, Sonke and others on behalf of the PPP have strategically engaged with various sex work sector and external organizations on the research report activity, the policing of sex work, police oversight, and sex work generally, including the following:

Being invited into these spaces enables engagement with stakeholders capable of championing change at both provincial and national levels.

Research Report Launch Event

Sonke and SWEAT engaged with the ISS to host the March 2018 launch event for The Policing of Sex Work in South Africa final research report (Evans & Walker, 2018). The COC Policing Dignity & Diversity Project contributed valuable policing and government connections to secure police participation, including a senior SAPS guest speaker. This multi-partner approach supported leveraging the various CSO partners’ relationships with law enforcement, policing oversight authorities, and government to attract an audience that was relevant and engaged with the topic. The event was simultaneously used to formally launch the PPP approach of solution-focused engagement.

The launch event was framed as the presentation of a portfolio of contemporary service experiences of a marginalized population group. Report recommendations were purposively left wide as a strategy prompting the start of conversation rather than being framed as a prescriptive list to be checked off. The event focused on identifying the challenges and signposting possible solutions for discussion and action. The launch format encouraged exploration of possible solutions through guest presenters, public panel discussions, and a subsequent closed dialogue event between sex work sector, government, and law enforcement stakeholders. The South African Civilian Secretariat for Police’s SaferSpaces website ( hosts the launch video, research reports (see, for example, Institute for Security Studies, 2018; Sonke Gender Justice, 2017; 2018), and submissions. A sample of media articles is included in the reference section.

The event was livestreamed via the Internet and attracted extensive media coverage, including newspaper, online, and television media. This generated multiple opportunities for the PPP to participate in public and government discourse on sex work issues, including criminalization, policy, law reform, and police oversight. The research report and launch also attracted international attention, including Human Rights Watch New York, which has subsequently published independent research, findings and recommendations on the policing and health experiences of South African sex workers (Human Rights Watch & SWEAT, 2019).

Key PPP Lessons

Project Approach

Issue Framing

Relationship Building

Sector Knowledge, Skills, and Capacity


Key Project Strategies and Activities

Since 2015, a Dutch organization, COC Netherlands (COC), partnered with South African CSOs and SAPS to deliver a national harm-reduction intervention targeting violence and human rights violations affecting sex workers, people who use drugs (PWUD), lesbians, gays, bisexuals, trans, and intersex (LGBTI). The Dignity, Diversity, and Policing Project (DDP) implemented an innovative multi-perspective strategy to address the needs of these community groups. The DDP project was implemented through a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between COC and SAPS, but its scope provided for other CSOs, such as the PPP, to engage with SAPS through that relationship.

The project developed a sensitization manual targeting police knowledge gaps and discriminatory and stigmatizing attitudes to educate police to embrace dignity and diversity when policing the sex work, PWUD, and LGBGTI communities. The project initially trained 25 police to train the trainers, who then tested the manual out with a further 173 police and piloted the revised manual with another 60 police. The sensitization manual was successfully registered as a SAPS in-service training manual, and the partnership expanded to train 1,300 operational police officers through financial support from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria.

Key Project Lessons


The positive policing partnership strategies described above generated initial progress in creating a forward-looking interface between civil society, government, law enforcement, and the sex work sector. It is through this developing interface that opportunities for long-term change can be created. It facilitates the building of trust, meaningful conversations, information sharing, partnership strengthening, tool creation, and inclusive training, which in turn foster mutual engagement and commitment in catalyzing improved policing outcomes for sex workers. The fundamental shift in approach from adversarial to multi-perspective capacitation opens up new possibilities by allowing stakeholders the freedom to adopt different stances and consider innovative solutions based on goodwill and partnership rather than blame, shame, and forced accountability.


The authors gratefully acknowledge the following organizations and individuals for their support: Sex Worker Education & Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT), Sisonke Sex Worker Movement, Sonke Gender Justice, South African Police Service, Leora Casey of the National AIDS Convention of South Africa (NACOSA). The funding sponsors had no role in the design of the study, in the collection, analyses, or interpretation of data, in the writing of the manuscript, and in the decision to publish the results. Sources of Support: Australian Aid, Australian Volunteers Program, Open Societies Foundation South Africa, COC Netherlands.


The authors declare that there are no conflicts of interest.


*RMIT University, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia,
School of Public Health & Family Medicine, University of Cape Town, Cape Town, South Africa,
African Centre for Migration & Society, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa.


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Correspondence to: Donna M. Evans, 235 Sugarloaf Road, Dungog NSW 2420, Australia. E-mail: or

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This article is related directly to the Law Enforcement & Public Health (LEPH) Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, October 2019. ( Return to Text )

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Journal of CSWB, Vol. 4, No. 4, December 2019