“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 off my clothes. They ripped my blouse…. One after the other.”

“’I am first’ [one said] and the other waited his turn…. From then on, they mistreated me. They forced me to do something I didn’t want to.”

“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?”

Words like this are echoed in a recent report by Amnesty International chronicling the cases of female sex workers in the Dominican Republic – including both those who were born female and transgender females.

The exposé detailed the shoddy behaviour of the country’s police – who routinely rape, beat, and abuse prostitutes as means of wielding control and grandiose machismo – with complete impunity.

Elina Castillo-Jiménez, Caribbean Campaigner at Amnesty International told InsideOver that Amnesty International collected multiple testimonies from 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.

Some of the women reported being raped by police officers at gunpoint. Transgender women said the police subjected them to discriminatory and violent actions, such as having their wigs burnt and verbal abuse thrown at them.

“It is important to step beyond the violence/abuse terminology and call this for what it is: gender-based torture,” Castillo-Jiménez said. “International and regional law clearly establishes rape by a state official as a form of torture. The testimonies collected show that the acts committed by the police against women sex workers cause severe suffering in them, and they answer to discriminatory causes, such as their gender identity. Acknowledging the gravity of these acts as torture – a crime under international law – ­is the first step to adopt proper measures to prevent them.”

Across Latin America and the Caribbean, gender-based violence is a growing epidemic. In this context, female sex workers are at heightened risk for violence from state officials and other individuals. Authorities are often ingrained with a sense of chauvinism, coupled with societal stigma and conservative religious values. This can act as a driving force for officials to unlawfully abuse their powers and punish women who engage in sex work.

“Dominican legislation sanctions torture as a crime and has aggravated penalties if committed by a state officer, like the police. Yet, in practice, this is poorly implemented, and our research shows one of the reasons is due to the stigma against women sex workers. Although the sale and purchase of sex between consenting adults is not a criminal offence in the Dominican Republic, aspects of the organization of sex work are. Even criminalizing aspects of sex work has a punitive effect on sex workers by imposing a criminalised status on them,” Castillo-Jiménez explained.

Since complaints from sex workers are rarely taken seriously, the acts of violence are seldom reported. Furthermore, the fear of repercussions or social humiliation also prohibits women from speaking out.

“We are urging the Dominican government to develop a national protocol for the investigation of potential cases of torture and other ill-treatment with a gender-based focus and consistent with international law standards, as the Istanbul Protocol,” Castillo-Jiménez added. “The Dominican Republic has the opportunity to become one of the first states in the Caribbean, if not the first one, to have specific legislation for the guarantee of equality and non-discrimination for all.”

Amnesty International has started a #FreeFromViolence petition in an attempt to better protect these women from gender-based abuse and mistreatment, which includes the approval of an anti-discrimination bill.