Dominican Republic: Sex workers 'routinely' tortured and raped by police
Police in the Dominican Republic routinely rape, beat, humiliate and verbally abuse women sex workers, Amnesty International revealed in a new report released today.
The 52-page report, ‘If they can have her, why can’t we?’ chronicles the stories of 46 Dominican cisgender (someone who identifies as a woman and was assigned female at birth) and transgender women sex workers, many of whom reported suffering various forms of violence, much of which amounts to gender-based torture. The abuse is used to exert social control over the women and to punish them for transgressing social norms of acceptable femininity and sexuality, the report found. The report also concludes that the criminalised status of sex workers fuels the arbitrary detentions by police and enables the abuse.
Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International, said:
“Gender-based violence is epidemic across Latin America and the Caribbean, with women sex workers at particular risk from state officials and other individuals.
“The harrowing testimonies that Amnesty International has gathered from the Dominican Republic reveal that police routinely target and inflict sexual abuse and humiliation on women who sell sex with the purpose of punishing and discriminating against them. Under international law, such treatment can amount to gender-based torture and other ill-treatment.
“By passing a law to prevent discrimination against some of the country’s most marginalised women, the Dominican Republic could set an example for the rest of the Caribbean to follow in the fight against stigma, machismo, and other drivers of extreme violence against women.”
Approximately half of the women interviewed by Amnesty were cisgender women, and the other half were transgender women. The women had decided to engage in sex work for a variety of reasons. For some, it offered flexibility and control over their working hours or higher pay compared with other alternatives and gave them financial independence. For others, sex work was one of the limited options they had to cover their basic needs.
Rape by police
Amnesty interviewed multiple women who described having been gang raped by armed and uniformed police officers in similar circumstances – late at night, on dark street corners, often in the back of police vehicles.
At least 10 of the 24 cisgender women interviewed for this report said police officers had raped them, often at gunpoint.
One woman explained to Amnesty how she was raped one night in October 2017.
“There were three of them. I was on a corner waiting for clients… and they abused me,” she said. “They pulled me onto the (police) van… They saw that the area was empty… They started to grope me, take of my clothes. They ripped my blouse…. One after the other,” she said.
She continued: “I was afraid. I was alone. I couldn’t defend myself. I had to let them do what they wanted with me… They threatened me, that if I wasn’t with them they would kill me. They (said) that I was a whore, and so why not with them?”
“They called me a “bitch” and used many offensive words…. They saw me, I guess, and they thought ‘Well, if they (clients) can have her, why can’t we?’”
Transgender women ‘at greater risk of torture’
The report details how women sex workers who live with multiple discriminated identities – such as transgender women – experience even more pronounced exclusion and are at greater risk of torture from the state and individuals.
Like in many countries, Dominican transgender women are heavily represented in sex work, due to the extreme stigma and discrimination which limits their access to formal employment.
Most of the transgender women interviewed had suffered discriminatory and violent actions (typically focused on their gender-identity or expression) at the hands of the police, that could amount to torture or other ill-treatment.
Transgender women reported being called “fags” and “devils” by police officials, and said they believed they were viewed as “aliens” or “animals”. Multiple transgender women reported that police had burned their wigs or forced them to clean prison cells covered in excrement to punish them.
Impunity for sexual torture
Impunity for sexual torture is typical. The Dominican Republic fails to collect any data that would help to determine the scope and severity of the problem of gender-based torture and ill-treatment by police, which is an essential step to combatting and holding perpetrators to account for such grave violence. This impunity fuels the normalisation of such crimes by the authorities, as well as by victims themselves in some cases.
Sex workers’ complaints are rarely taken seriously by the authorities. One woman told Amnesty: “If you go to the police station to make a complaint, they treat you like a whore. They ignore you. They don’t pay you any attention.”
Another woman who told Amnesty that she was raped by two police officers said: “Accusing a police (officer) is to do nothing, because they don’t do anything.”
Amnesty is calling on the Dominican president Danilo Medina to publicly recognise and condemn the use of rape and other forms of gender-based torture and ill-treatment by the police, and on the Prosecutor General’s Office to develop a protocol for the investigation of potential cases. Dominican legislators must also urgently pass a draft law currently under consideration, which is designed to address multiple forms of discrimination.