On 24 February 2016, 19 women in the Dedza District of Malawi were arrested and fined. They were charged with living off the avails of prostitution. On 8 September 2016, the Zomba High Court ruled that the Dedza Magistrate had no jurisdiction to hear the case and that the arrest of the women was unconstitutional. According to the court, the law was meant to protect sex workers against exploitation. However, the law was being used to arrest, detain, and fine sex workers and this violated their human rights.
“Sex workers mainly work at night in the District of Dedza. They were not even working when they were arrested. They were together having breakfast,” said Aniz Mitha, a volunteer with the Malawi Sex Workers Alliance (MASWA).
The sex workers plead guilty to the charge and were fined 7,000 Malawian Kwacha (MK), which is approximately 7.5 British Pound Sterling (GPB). They were given back the 7,000 MK by the High Court.
The offences related to sex work in Malawi were introduced during the British colonial period. Sex work itself is not illegal in Malawi. According to the Southern Africa Litigation Centre, “no provision in the Malawi Penal Code criminalises the selling of sexual services by a sex worker. It is accordingly unlawful to apply sections of the Penal Code to a sex worker that were originally aimed at protecting sex workers from exploitation.”
“The wrongful arrest of sex workers is one of the main issues in the country,” continued Aniz Mitha. “We hope that this case sends a clear message that sex workers are deserving of rights, and the police should not be arresting us when we are not doing anything illegal.”
“We need to know our rights as sex workers,” he continued. “If we have a group of people who know their rights, the police may not have the power to arrest them in this way.”
Aniz Mitha and 5 other sex workers from MASWA participated in the Sex Worker Academy Africa. MASWA is currently building the capacity of sex workers in Malawi to fight for their rights.