Sex workers stand up against torture and ill-treatment by police in the Dominican Republic

Women engaged in sex work in the Dominican Republic are routinely raped, tortured, and humiliated by police as a form of social control, and as punishment for transgressing social norms surrounding femininity and sexuality. Transgender women suffer particularly extreme forms of sexual abuse and humiliation due to the additional transphobia they face. We must demand their protection and rights now.

Amnesty International documented the stories of women that have been subjected to these abuses in “If they can have her, why can’t we?,” a report published in April 2019.

Luna’s story

In this video, Luna explains how transphobia and homophobia in the Dominican Republic influence particular forms of gender-based violence against people like her, engaged in sex work, and how their activism has helped to bring about change.

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Gender-based violence

Gender-based violence in Latin America and the Caribbean is an epidemic. In 2017 alone, in the Dominican Republic there were 6,300 reports of sexual offences, 1,290 were rapes. In 2018 at least 100 women were killed because of their gender (femicide), making this one of the highest rates in the region.

Women who engage in sex work are particularly vulnerable to gender-based abuse by state and private actors.

According to our research, police in the Dominican Republic routinely rape, humiliate, torture and otherwise mistreat women engaged in sex work.

“If you do sex work, they (the police) consider you as the worst kind of woman…They (the police) pull your hair, they hit you, and push you. They treat you like a dog. As if we are dogs in the street, with four paws… They call you ‘dirty whore’, that’s normal.”

This is a situation frequently experienced by sex workers across the country and occurs due to a deeply engrained culture of machismo within the National Police, in addition to discrimination and stigma against sex workers in a conservative society.

Despite the fact that the attacks perpetrated against sex workers by the police in the Dominican Republic may qualify as torture or ill-treatment – crimes under international law – police are rarely punished for these acts.

Many women engaged in sex work don’t report crimes against them because they fear humiliation or retribution.

“Accusing a police (officer) is to do nothing, because they (the authorities) don’t do anything.”

Those that do file reports against police are rarely taken seriously.

Multiple discriminated identities

Women engaged in sex work with multiple discriminated identities, such as transgender or afro-descendent sex workers, suffer particularly brutal forms of abuse, as punishment for not conforming to traditional social norms.

Transgender sex workers, for example, report that police often remove and burn their wigs as a form of humiliation, while others report that they have been forced to clean prison toilets covered in excrement.

“They said I was a man, ‘a damn fag, a fag from hell’. With obscene words they said: ‘Look at those tits of sponge, take off her hair, take away those cloths that she has on her tits.’ They took down my pants to see if I had a vulva or a penis.” -A transgender sex worker describing an interaction with police in Santo Domingo.

Human rights defenders

Women who engage in sex work in the Dominican Republic are at the receiving end of violence and discrimination, but many of them also find the courage to lead groups and organizations finding strength in unity to stand up for their humanity and against these attacks. Even then, they find themselves questioned as women human rights defenders based on their gender and their occupation as sex workers causing them to be excluded from broader movements across the globe. Still, organizations like Otrasex, CONTRAVETD, and TRANSSA continue to fight to transform the world around them in Dominican Republic.

What can be done?

“This country has the most violence against women, because if you report a man who mistreats us, they don’t do anything. He could even kill us. This should change. There shouldn’t be so much violence against women and sex workers, because I do it because I like it, and besides that’s my livelihood for my children, and it’s my only source of work.” 

To ensure respect for the rights of women engaged in sex work, the Dominican Republic must:

Publicly recognize rape by police as torture and make clear that all those responsible for such acts will be brought to justice;

Ensure the investigation, prosecution and punishment of police that are accused and found guilty of these crimes; and

Pass anti-discrimination legislation and adopt other measures to protect and promote the rights of marginalized groups.

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