Thursday, August 6, 1998

Kwaku Baka

Ghana Police Sweeps

ACCRA, (Panos) -- Kofi Mensah watched from his doorway with an air of cynicism as the police vehicles drove off with their latest haul of 13 prostitutes from his neighbourhood.

Mensah knows that tonight's swoop, like others in the past, will not yield lasting results: tomorrow morning, Accra's sex market will still be booming. And, come next week, the prostitutes will be back in business.

"Arrests are not the answer -- rather we have to educate the women and provide them with alternative sources of employment," Mensah, an octogenarian tells anyone who has broached the topic of prostitution within his hearing.

He is particularly scathing about the discriminatory nature of the swoops, saying the male clients of sex workers should not be spared.

But State Prosecutor, Inspector Alex Yartey Tawiah of the Ghana Police Service, maintains that even though it is men who engage the services of prostitutes, it is the women who are arrested because they are "conspicuous."

"Their way of dressing gives indication that they are prostitutes or are soliciting for men for sexual activities for monetary gains. It is difficult to detect that a man had the services of a prostitute if he is not seen in the act," he told Panos Features.

The comments highlight concerns expressed in a recent research paper by the London-based nongovernmental organisation, Anti- Slavery International. Funded by the British government, the paper -- titled Redefining Prostitution As Sex Work On The International Agenda -- says that in United Nations conventions, prostitution is often defined as a human rights violation on a level with slavery.

This in turn means that international legislative and regulatory approaches to prostitution -- or sex work as the researchers prefer to describe it -- tend to focus on its abolition. The so-called Abolitionist approach believes that prostitution only persists through the efforts of procurers or pimps, without whom the institution of prostitution will whither away.

"Such approaches are rooted in fundamental misunderstandings of the employment nature of sex work," the researcher says. These approaches leave sex workers outside the ambit of legal protection, making them vulnerable to abuse -- the more so because of their marginal social status as poor people, women and young persons.

"Their vulnerability to human and labour rights violations is greater than that of others because of the stigma and criminal charges widely attached to sex work. These allow police and others to harass sex workers without ever intervening to uphold their most elementary rights," says the paper's author Jo Bindman.

Under Ghana's Criminal Code of 1960, soliciting can attract a jail term of between six months and three years. Officially, prostitution is punishable by a fine of 50 cedi (one US dollar=2,325 cedi). But as the fine has not been reviewed for more than 30 years, many courts use their discretion.

According to Inspector Tawiah, 45 prostitutes who were arrested in a raid last year were fined a minimum of 50,000 cedi (21.50 dollars) and a maximum 200,000 cedi (86 dollars).

If they were unable to pay up, they were given jail terms of between three and six months. Repeated arrests for prostitution could lead to a further charge of "misdemeanour".

While prostitution itself is not illegal in Ghana, soliciting is. But although commercial sex work is not officially recognised in Ghana, the 1994 Constitution ensures that the human rights of any prostitute arrested is fully protected -- they are to be produced before a court or released on bail within 48 hours.

The Regional Director of the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ), Kwabla Senanu who is also a lawyer, adds: "Sex workers as human beings and as women have the right to enjoy all the human rights spelt out in the Constitution, but do not have a right by virtue of being a prostitute."

The British research paper says, "As in other countries, police practice (in Ghana) is highly variable and the law simply renders sex workers vulnerable to arbitrary arrest, and to exploitation by clients, and by staff of the hotels and other establishments they use."

A 1995 research by the GTZ Regional AIDS Programme showed that of sex workers surveyed in 26 towns and cities, one-third reported problems with the police, "citing intimidation, periodic raids... extortion of moneys and threats. The report said "being arrested by the police and freed after having sex with the officers is common."

None of the established labour unions are prepared to defend sex worker's rights as a worker. Ghana's Trades Union Congress (TUC) does not consider prostitution an occupation because it is not legally recognised as such. "It does not exist in our labour laws," TUC Administrative Secretary A.C. Coleman said.

"I don't think it would be appropriate to repeal any legislation. The most important thing is to find solutions to the problems that lead people to indulge in prostitution which no doubt is economic stress," Coleman added. The research paper says that the sex industry may be growing in response to current economic pressures. The agricultural and informal sectors which traditionally provided female employment are being squeezed by Ghana's Structural Adjustment Programme.

However, the stigmatisation of sex workers is not unique to developing countries. The research paper points out that the law in England and Wales also follows the Abolitionist model -- sex workers on the street are highly vulnerable to police intervention and the sex industry is "heavily stigmatised."

There are other considerations. "I think the rate of immorality would increase if sex workers are given the mandate to operate," CHRAJ's Kwabla Senanu said.

Similarly, an official of the International Federation of Women said: "Though prostitution is legalised in some countries, especially developed countries, that does not mean we in Africa and such developing countries should also legalise it or give it any support. It is a crime..."

With such strong views from influential sectors of society, the struggle for a better deal is often left to the sex workers themselves, but there are no associations to speak for them.

"The police would arrest us if they knew our identity and where we work," said Yaa Fofie (not her real name), a 32-year- old prostitute who has been in practice for about seven years. She believes that if sex workers are recognised as a profession, they might be able to work without harassment.

The report suggests that all national legislation which results in the placing of sex workers outside the scope of the rule of law should be repealed. In addition, existing standards agreed by the United Nations and International Labour Organisation should be closely examined so that they can be invoked to prevent abuses against sex workers, it adds.

* Editor: Dipankar De Sarkar. Publishers are asked to send clippings of published features to Panos Features, 9 White Lion Street, London NI 9PD. Panos Features are also available on the Panos website and by e-mail from Mark Covey, markc(at)

(c) 1998, Inter Press Service Third World News Agency (IPS) All rights reserved. Distribution via MISANET May not be reproduced, reprinted or posted to any system or service outside of the MISANET without permission from IPS or MISA. For MISA information, send a message to and for information about IPS, send a message to Lynette Muringi-Matimba at

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Created: >September 8, 1998
Last modified: September 10, 1998

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