On 23rd May 2014, police from the 76th Police Precinct in Niterói, near Rio de Janeiro, invaded (without judicial authorisation) a building occupied by 300 sex workers and other residents. Around 100 sex workers were taken for investigation at police stations.
It is believed to be a part of mass hygienisation (social cleansing) in the city centre of Niterói, aimed at enforcing a new “image of Brazil” for the FIFA World Cup 2014 which began on 12th June. Sex workers, those living in the apartment, and surrounding residents of the area faced displacement and closed businesses. Sex workers reported acts of rape, theft, and physical violence by the police officers, with further claims that the police planted evidence of false crimes in their belongings to purposely make matters worse.
On returning to the apartment complex, sex workers found little left or nothing at all. Windows were smashed, door locks destroyed, personal items and money were taken. The presumption was that illegally escorting sex workers to the police station allowed police to take everything and to shame sex workers and allies. Having the law on their side paves the way for countless acts of corrupt police action against the sex worker community. The laws on sex work in Brazil are conflicting and can cause confusion; sex work is not illegal, but the law criminalises any third party who profits from the sex industry, whether they are a brothel owner, or private bodyguard. This causes a huge problem as public authorities like the police have mechanisms of control over sex workers and take advantage of this.
A public hearing was held on 4th June at the Rio de Janeiro state legislature examining violations of the rights of prostitutes in Niterói. It was organized by the Human Rights Commission and the Commission for the Defence of Women’s Rights. Surrounding residents spoke of their attempts to make complaints against the police, however they were disregarded. Those present (sex workers, lawyers, the general public) highlighted the persecution of these women, the lack of information, illegal and violent actions of the police, and their incessant attempts to prevent the lawyers who support prostitutes from monitoring their cases. Clara Prazeres Bragança from the Women’s Rights Defence Nucleus of the Public Defender’s Office, stated: “Either the state no longer controls its police, or there is a deliberate policy of human rights violations”. Due to the absence of police representatives at the hearing, it was decided that another will be organised. The Head of the Civil Police, the Civil Defence, and the Public Ministry of the State and residents of Niteroi will be invited.
Research has found that sex workers are particularly vulnerable to police violence during international sporting events. This includes harassment; violence; displacement from areas of work and problems in meeting clients. Health risks, due to an inability to access medical services, also increase. Although these might occur in any case, mega sporting events have been found to cause countries to prioritise their international image; this brings issues such as sex work more readily to the surface. Further, police forces often adopt a militaristic approach during mega events. Conflated claims of human trafficking and organised crime lead to major crackdowns on the sex industry, despite limited evidence to suggest these crimes take place.
I conducted primary research in Rio de Janeiro in 2013 demonstrating that sex workers were in already in fear of police violence before the World Cup 2014. The research also found that sex workers experienced discriminatory behaviour from healthcare professionals and questioned the health entitlements and rights of Brazil’s sex working community. Mega events are consistently demonstrating a global trend: the sex worker community will face adverse effects when its country hosts an international event. Social cleansing and exit routes out of the industry are enforced to reduce the rights of sex workers who want to work. Police brutality is experienced by sex workers across the world, but this is intensified further during mega event preparation. What is required is an immediate revision of policies on the health and safety of sex workers.
A leading sex worker charity in Brazil has recently released a video telling the story of one of the sex workers who experienced police violence in the Niterói raid. It can be found here.