Dozens of sex workers took to the streets of Malawi’s capital Lilongwe on Thursday to protest against what they described as “targeted police brutality” following new Covid-19 restrictions.
The protests were led by the Female Sex Workers Association (FSWA), which has about 120,000 members across the country, according to its national coordinator, Zinenani Majawa.
The southern African country has seen Covid numbers rise dramatically this month, prompting the government to take drastic action, with land borders closed and isolation orders for anyone arriving by air.
Malawi now has 21,660 confirmed cases, 13,646 active and 7,249 who have recovered, according to ministry of health data. Most of the 555 deaths from the virus have come this year, prompting President Lazarus Chakwera to declare a state of national disaster. Two of his ministers and other government officials are among those who have died.
But the sex workers said some of the new retrictions had led police to target them. These include an 8pm curfew on bars, with customers required to take away drinks, and an order that no one must be found socialising between 9pm and 5am.
“Because of the new Covid-19 laws, police have taken advantage of the law by coming and knocking in our rooms and beating us. We haven’t heard of a case where they went to married people’s homes to knock at their doors and beat them but because they know that we are found in the rooms they are coming there,” Majawa told the Guardian.
“Some of our members have sustained wounds,” said Majawa, adding that Covid-19 preventive measures should not override human rights.
FSWA has petitioned the government to extend the closing time for bars to midnight and keep them open at weekends, saying “business is not working since our clients have disappeared”.
“We believe that sex work is work. We pay our bills including rents and food from this work. We even send our children to school from the money that we get,” Majawa said.
“It is noted that some gathering places like churches have maintained their normal gathering hours while observing the preventive measures and we feel segregated and discriminated hence we request to uplift the measures and let us do business as usual while observing the preventive measures.”
She added that sex workers were destitute and she feared some might die of hunger. The association has warned of problems with antiretroviral treatment, “as one needs to have food before taking the HIV/Aids medication”.
The new measures include a requirement to wear masks in public, and reports of police beating people without masks have drawn presidential condemnation.
President Chakwera said: “Citizens found to be in violation of public safety laws must be subjected to due process, not police brutality or beatings. Malawi is not a police state, for what we have in the country is a police service not force.”
Public transport ground to a halt on some routes this week in Lilongwe and the commercial capital Blantyre as minibus drivers claimed they were running at a loss. They have asked the government to allow them to carry more passengers or reduce the price of fuel. Minibuses are heavily relied upon by workers and business people in the cities.
The police did not comment on the allegations.
There was no immediate comment from the government on the petition from sex workers but the attorney general, Chikosa Silungwe, told the Guardian the legality of sex work was a divisive issue.
He said the government would look at the issues raised and respond.