Chinese Women's Rights Activists Hit Out at Police Over Sex Worker Raids

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Police arrest suspected prostitutes during a campaign to crack down on prostitution in Dongguan, southeast China's Guangdong province, Feb. 9, 2014.

Chinese women's rights activists have called on the government to do more to protect sex workers from disease after a report showed frequent police raids are limiting the use of condoms.

The activists have hit out at police for relying on the mere possession of condoms as evidence of prostitution, as part of an ongoing "strike hard" campaign, undermining efforts to prevent the spread of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Women's Network Against AIDS founder Wang Qiuyun said sex workers in China are unwilling to carry condoms for their own protection for fear that they will lead to arrest.

"Sometimes, when we hand out free condoms in the red light districts, the women are telling us that they don't want them, because they're afraid the police will find them and use them as evidence," Wang told RFA.

"But they also talk to us about how sexually transmitted diseases start to spread if they don't use them," she said.

She said awareness of disease prevention, including HIV prevention, is fairly high among Chinese sex workers.

"They get it," Wang said. "They're just afraid of being searched by police."

She said her organization has made repeated attempts to have a dialogue with local government on this issue.

"We didn't get much of a result, though," she said.

Activist Ye Haiyan, known online as "Hooligan Sparrow," the eponymous subject of an award-winning documentary about her activism, said police use of condoms as evidence of prostitution affects everyone.

"It's not just about how condoms are important equipment for sex workers ... this also has an impact on condom use among other people [who aren't sex workers]," Ye, who has been harassed and evicted for her women's rights activism, told RFA in a recent interview.

"For example, women who see themselves as respectable may worry that they will be perceived as easy by their heterosexual partners, who may even think they are sex workers if they carry condoms," she said.

"China is pretty traditional, and women are more likely not to carry condoms, just to show that they are nice girls," Ye said.

Report on sex workers

The New York-based Asia Catalyst group published a report this week detailing the effects of widespread interrogation and searches of sex workers across China, where prostitution is a criminal offense.

It found that just 48 percent of sex workers who had been raided or interrogated by police continued to insist on condom use. The rest no longer carried them.

But that figure rose to 68 percent among sex workers who had not been targeted, 76 percent of whom said that they always carry condoms.

"Sex work is illegal in China, and law enforcement practices that focus on condoms as evidence of prostitution are having a negative impact on HIV prevention among sex workers," the report's authors wrote on the Asia Society's ChinaFile website said.

"Interrogations are often accompanied by the confiscation of condoms, a practice that not only endangers the lives of the sex workers and their clients, but also undercuts the country’s own efforts to stem the spread of sexually transmitted diseases," Charmain Mohamed and Shen Tingting wrote as the report was published.

China's "punitive" approach to sex work, especially during periodic "strike hard" campaigns across the country, has led to the shutdown of thousands of entertainment venues and the detention of tens of thousands of sex workers, the article said.

The authors said that condoms play a central role in police activity around sex work.

"Police officers stop sex workers on the street, open their bags, and search for condoms; they burst into rooms to look for condoms in wastebaskets, beds, and quilts; and they even remove the trousers of clients in order to find condoms," Shen and Mohamed wrote.

"Many of the people we surveyed told us that finding condoms was the deciding factor in whether or not authorities detained them."

Reported by Ha Si-man for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.


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