HARARE, Zimbabwe — Women in Zimbabwe are starting to venture out at night without fear of being arrested on prostitution charges after the constitutional Court ruled it was illegal and sexist for police to indiscriminately arrest women on the streets and in public establishments.
Before the ruling, women out at night were frequently arrested on allegations of being prostitutes. According to Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, police had arrested up to 153 women on a single night. But men were not arrested on similar charges.
The court ruled on May 27 that the practice was discriminatory and deprived women of equal rights and the right to liberty.
The case was pursued by women who were arrested in March 2014 under “Operation No to Robberies and Prostitution” in the Avenues, which has a red-light area. According to the charge sheet, the women were “standing in the street, looking for men to lure such that they will have sex and get payment thereafter.”
Police clampdowns often involved raiding drinking establishments at night to indiscriminately arrest women. Such dragnets had overtly sexist names such as “Operation It’s Time to Get Married.” At times, police officers would arrest every female patron leaving a bar while letting the men go free.
Officers regularly patrolled on bicycle, on foot and on horseback, targeting women as early as 7 p.m. in downtown Harare and nearby residential areas. Women who had nothing to do with prostitution were often arrested.
Winnet Shamuyarira remembers being arrested when she was an 18-year-old high school student while walking in the city centre as she left a school-organized function, and again while leaving a pub with her boyfriend. The first time, the school headmaster intervened. The second, she paid a $20 fine to avoid harassment and sleeping in filthy police cells, she said.
Tawanda Zhuwarara, a lawyer who represented women in the constitutional Court case, said: “It is absurd to suggest that in this day and age, females are banned from being at certain places at night; that only men should enjoy a night out while women stay at home.”
The raids have been going on for decades in Zimbabwe. During the first, Operation Clean Up in 1983, soldiers even broke into homes and demanded marriage certificates from men and women in bed together. Many Zimbabweans marry under customary law that provides no licenses. Thousands of arrested women were carted off to camps for “rehabilitation” that included skills like basket-weaving. Security forces even arrested women walking alone during the day.
The patriarchal nature of Zimbabwe’s traditional culture has for ages relegated women to second class citizens. Activists say this resulted in women struggling to assert equality even where it is enshrined in the Constitution.
After the court ruling, a palpable sense of freedom was felt among many women.
“I can go out to have a drink again,” Shamuyarira said. “This is so refreshing.”
Police can still make arrests for prostitution, according to the law. But sex workers also toasted the ruling.
At one urban street corner favoured by prostitutes, there was even a truce of sorts with police officers seen chatting with sex workers.