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Police in the Dominican Republic routinely rape, beat, humiliate and verbally abuse women sex workers to exert social control over them and to punish them for transgressing social norms of acceptable femininity and sexuality, said Amnesty International in a new report released today.

If they can have her, why can’t we?’ chronicles the stories of 46 Dominican cisgender and transgender women sex workers, many of whom reported suffering various forms of violence, much of which amount to gender-based torture and other ill-treatment. The criminalized status of sex workers combined with profound machismo, fuels arbitrary detentions by police and enables these grave human rights violations, with impunity.

“Gender-based violence is epidemic across Latin America and the Caribbean, with women sex workers at particular risk from state officials and other individuals,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International.

“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.”

In the Dominican Republic, in 2018 alone, the Prosecutor General’s Office received over 71,000 reports of gender-based and intra-family violence, and more than 6,300 reports of sexual offenses, including 1,290 reports of rape.

The country also has one of the region’s highest femicide rates, with more than 100 cases recorded in 2017, according to the UN Gender Equality Observatory for Latin America and the Caribbean. Similarly, 47 transgender women have been killed since 2006, according to the transgender-led NGO Trans Siempre Amigas (TRANSSA).

Public health experts estimate there are as many as 97,000 cisgender women sex workers in the Dominican Republic, and at least 3,900 transgender women, many of who engage in sex work.

Approximately half of the women interviewed by Amnesty International 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.

At least 10 of the 24 cisgender women interviewed for this report said police officers had raped them, often at gunpoint. Most of the transgender women had also 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.

Amnesty International 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.

One woman explained to Amnesty International 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?’”

The report also 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.

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 is typical. The Dominican Republic fails to collect any data that would help 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 account for such grave violence. This impunity fuels the normalization of such crimes by the authorities, as well as by victims themselves in some cases.

Sex workers’ complaints are rarely taken seriously by authorities. One woman told Amnesty International: “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.”

Despite having ratified multiple international human rights instruments that prohibit torture, the Dominican authorities fail to prevent, properly investigate or provide remedies for these potential cases of torture, as required by international law.

Over the past decades, the Dominican Republic has taken steps to address the co-existing epidemics of violence against women and HIV&AIDS, which both disproportionately impact sex workers. But it has stopped short of listening to the needs and protecting the rights of sex workers and carrying out the legal reforms sorely needed to address the underlying drivers of stigma and discrimination against them.

Amnesty International calls on Dominican president Danilo Medina to publicly recognize and condemn the use of rape and other forms of gender-based torture and ill-treatment by the police, and the Prosecutor General’s Office to develop a protocol for the investigation of potential cases of this nature.

Dominican legislators must also urgently pass the draft law currently under consideration, which is designed to address multiple forms of discrimination, in order to ensure profound structural change and protect all historically marginalized groups from the stigma and discrimination that fuels human rights abuses.

“By passing a law to prevent discrimination against some of the country’s most marginalized 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,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas.

“This would in turn help the country address its wider epidemic of gender-based violence, which, like violence against sex workers, is rooted in machismo and hatred.”

Further information: 

Dominican Republic: Horrifying killing of transgender woman highlights need for protection against discrimination (News, 6 June 2017)

Dominican Republic: ‘Shut up if you don’t want to be killed!’: Human rights violations by the police in the Dominican Republic. (Research, 25 October 2011)

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