Securing the Rights and Protections of Africa’s Sex Workers

[Crosslinked at Future Challenges Organization‘s blog]

Sex work is a business that requires only one‘s bodily capital. The economics of scarcity are often a factor in making sex work a viable and lucrative option for women and men.  Because sex work is illegal in 37 African nations, sex workers are often criminalized and subjected to harassment at the hands of policemen and government officials. In addition to criminalization, the migration that often accompanies sex work makes it harder to gather viable statistics on how many sex workers there are within one nation, or even track their transnational movement. In Southern and East Africa, sex work often occurs at the borders where bureaucratic processes leave truck drivers waiting for permission to enter the country. The wait can last from hours to days. Also, the sex trade is a complementary industry to mining industry, where mine workers are sometimes live away from their spouses and families in compounds.

Challenges include mobility, criminalization, language differences, cultural norms and entrenched traditions. However, this has not stopped sex workers across Africa from organizing collectively to raise awareness and campaign for an end to violence against sex workers.The African Sex Workers Alliance  (ASWA) is working in Uganda, Mozambique, South Africa and Kenya to decriminalize sex work and expand the rights of sex workers. In Kenya, the African Sex Workers Alliance marked December 17th, 2010 as the first International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. In Abuja, Nigeria, sex workers demonstrated for their rights and protections on March 3rd, which is International Sex Worker Rights Day.

In South Africa, where prostitution has been illegal since 1957, sex workers report regular harassment by the police. The Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) is following up on all cases alleging harassment or wrongful arrest by the police. The Sisonke Sex Worker Movement, based in Johannesburg, had a large number of calls from sex workers who were arrested or assaulted by South African police following the March 3rd demonstration for the International Sex Worker Rights Day. In Johannesburg, Cape Town and Mussina, South African sex workers took to the streets and demonstrated with signs and red umbrellas. However, after the protests, some sex workers faced harassment from the police. Some reports included demands for bribes in the form of sexual favors or money in order to avoid arrest. Kyomya Macklean, South Africa‘s regional coordinator for the African Sex Worker Alliance, stated:

“People who brutalize sex workers do so with the hope that sex workers will feel too afraid to come out and report these events. Can these police officers not see that these women have feelings and that they were really scared or do they simply see sex workers as an object? When you kicked her do you not have any sense of remorse and concern for the victim or is this something that brings you enjoyment, a malicious and tic violence that comes from acting as a law unto yourself and feeling power, control and pleasure in hurting the other and reducing them to feeling helpless? But I want you to know, we will not be turned into objects and we will have the courage to be powerful and seek justice and demand we are treat with respect. You will not take taking away and undermine our capacity to experience ourselves in powerful and independent women.”

HIV/AIDS and Access to Healthcare

The HIV prevalance among sex workers in some nations in sub-Saharan Africa are up to 20 times higher than that of the general population. In Southern and East Africa, HIV prevalence in the general population is much higher than that in West Africa. However, up to a third of West African sex workers are living with HIV or AIDS. In Ghana, female sex workers, their clients and the sexual partners of those clients made up 33 percent of new reported HIV infections in 2009. This figure was 10 percent in Uganda, and 14 percent in Kenya.

The criminalization of homosexuality (it‘s a capital crime in Mauritania, Sudan and the Central African Republic) makes it difficult to find reliable statistics on HIV prevalence among male and transgender sex workers. One study in Mombasa, Kenya found that less than half of male sex workers interviewed consistently used condoms with their male clients. Condom usage among male sex workers was similarly low with female clients.

In Kenya, a condom shortage The Kenyan government stopped importing condoms produced in China because they were of poor quality. The US‘ Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief has sent 45 million to Kenya. According to Peter Cherutich, the Deputy Director of Kenya‘s National AIDS Control Programme, the government signed a long-term agreement with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFP) to supply 180 million condoms in May. Additionally, female condoms, while convenient and effective in preventing pregnancy, are cost-prohibitive.

It is clear that accessible, good-quality healthcare is needed- especially for sex workers who have contracted sexually transmitted infections, which are co-factors for contracting HIV and for sex workers who are living with HIV/AIDS. This care extends beyond services like HIV counseling, testing, and therapy. Effective healthcare for stigmatized and criminalized populations like sex workers hinge heavily on the sensitivity of the personnel in the medical care center. Staff attitudes are instrumental to making patients feel as though they can ask for much-needed services without judgment. Additionally, waiting times, language barriers and environments that are not child-friendly can be impediments to vital healthcare.


Sex work is very risky on several fronts. Legally, sex work and sex workers are criminalized. Socially, attitudes toward sex work tend to excuse violence and abuse levied against sex workers. Physically, there is a risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections and diseases like Hepatitis A, B, Syphilis and the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). In addition, the overlap between drug use and sex work increases the likelihood of spreading HIV through injection-drug use infection.

Harm reduction methodologies include peer education, training in condom-use negotiating skills, safety training for street-based sex workers and community-based child protection networks. Harm reduction is just what the name implies- sensitive, responsive, non-judgmental approaches to education, empowerment and equipping within marginalized or stigmatized populations- in this case, sex workers.  The emphasis on education, empowerment and equipping is significant because it recognizes sex workers are individuals capable of making choices in their best interest with the information that is available to them. Rather than positioning them as victims, harm reduction approaches tend to focus on whole individuals with particular needs.

Among Chadian sex workers, peer-to-peer education and counseling has proven to be the most cost-effective form of outreach and empowerment. It is also one of the most sustainable approaches, because as veteran sex workers counsel less-experienced sex workers, they pass on what is perhaps the most important currency- information. Furthermore, peer-to-peer learning is firmly situated within sex workers‘ networks. In Johannesburg, hotel-based sex workers have adopted a similar community development model to reduce risk and educate less-experienced sex workers.

Written by Zawadi Nyong‘o, “When I Dare To Be Powerful: On The Road To A Sexual Rights Movement in East Africa” highlights the multifaceted oral histories and experiences of five East African sex workers. The last section of the book was a list of 32 risk-management tips for sex workers, by sex workers. This is an example of a rights-based harm reduction approach to empowering sex workers. The fact that Nyong‘o used interview footage and oral histories of sex workers is empowering also. Allowing these women to speak about their experiences to a wider audience brings attention to the real needs of sex workers. Sex worker-led organizations like the Women‘s Organization for Human Rights Advocacy (WONETHA) in Uganda focus on equipping sex workers via training in functional literacy and financial management, in addition to counseling and reproductive healthcare.

If the criminalization of sex work and the abuses of sex workers continues unabated, it does not bode well for other marginalized groups on the continent. Without formal recognition and decriminalization of sex work, sex workers remain on margins of society and their voices aren‘t heard and needs aren‘t met. Without an open dialogue about the abuses levied agianst sex workers and the risks of sex work, there cannot be any real change. This dialogue has implications in the myriad fights against HIV/AIDS, violence against women, and the fights against homophobia and transphobia. Handing a sewing machine or a tomato to an African sex worker isn‘t addressing the specific grievances of sex workers. Advocacy organizations like the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT), the African Sex Workers Alliance  (ASWA) and the Johannesburg-based Sisonke Sex Worker Movement are bringing the myriad voices and needs of sex workers to the fore.


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