Sex workers in Malawi are now free to patronise hospitality and drinking joints without fearing arrests, thanks to a new court ruling.
The development came after the High Court of Malawi declared that women were free to be at any hospitality facility and should not be arrested on suspicion of indulging in prostitution.
High Court Judge Zione Ntaba made the declaration when she overturned the conviction of 19 sex workers who were arrested and prosecuted in February 24 this year.
A lower court convicted the sex workers for allegedly living on earnings of prostitution after being arrested in drinking joints and motels in central Malawi’s district of Dedza.
“Hotels, inns, rest houses and motels were not meant for men only but for both men and women,” she said in her ruling.
She wondered why the women prostitutes were arrested in lodges at night leaving out the male clients, saying it took two to tangle.
Ntaba quashed their convictions and ordered the State to compensate the sex workers.
Following their conviction by the lower court, the sex workers were told to pay $10 fines, which prompted them to appeal against the ruling at the High Court of Malawi.
Authorities in Malawi were blamed for perpetrating various abuses, including rape which sex workers faced.
“Policemen are the most officials who use their profession to rape these prostitutes but what they forget is that prostitution is not a crime according to our constitution, thus it is unfair to violate the rights of prostitutes in the country,” observed human rights activist Victor Mhango.
According to Mhango, while some viewed prostitution as immoral, others viewed it as a profession that brought food on the table of the practitioners.
“Much as prostitution is viewed as a breeding profession for HIV, there are still those who regard it as businesses through which they support themselves,” said Mhango.
A survey by University of Malawi lecturer Paul Kishindo titled ‘Sexual behaviour in the face of risk: The case of bar girls in Malawi’s major cities’ concluded that young women who became bar girls did so out of economic necessity.
“When service as a bar girl is combined with commercial sex, there is a good chance for a girl to improve her financial security,” reads the survey report in part.
The report added: “As long as poverty remains at present levels and the female, for whatever reason, cannot get a good job or profitable self-employment, commercial sex will remain an attractive option.”
Prostitution not illegal
Some legal analysts said the continued arrest of sex workers over alleged involvement in prostitution was not backed by law.
Southern Africa Litigation Centre in its analysis once observed that no provision in the Malawi Penal Code criminalised the selling of sexual services by a sex worker.
According to the centre, some police officers simply arrested hookers on the wrong assumption that sex work was illegal.
“This assumption is based on an interpretation of Section 146 of the Malawi Penal Code which prohibits a woman from living on the earnings of prostitution.
“Such an interpretation is then used to justify an arrest under section 184(c) of the Penal Code, which provides that a person found in a place in circumstances which lead to the conclusion that such person is there for an illegal purpose, is deemed a rogue and vagabond,” says the litigation centre.