Sex work is criminalised in most African countries. It is often noted that sex workers constitute an ‘invisible population’. The deep-rooted stigma to the sale of sex, the routine criminalisation of sex work and the squalid conditions under which many work, compound the secrecy and mystery attached to sex work and ensure that little information is available about sex workers.
An array of legislation, local level by-laws and law enforcement policies impact negatively on sex workers. For this reason it is difficult to analyse the restrictions and legislation placed on sex work in the regions in which PV works and so the context is by necessity, general in nature.
Sex work is presently illegal in most of the countries in Southern and East Africa, West Africa and North Africa – although with some variations. Predominant attitudes towards sex work are that it is immoral and exploitative however the strongest critics of sex work are often the consumers themselves.
While seemingly quite a sweeping generalisation, there is little to no dialogue or activities on legal and policy reform related to sex work. Sex worker advocacy organisations have largely struggled to get heard and although there have been some notable achievements in raising the profile of sex worker issues and concerns, there has been little change in legislation and practice.
Most social interventions focus on rescuing and/or rehabilitating sex workers and preventing HIV transmission between sex workers and clients. Evidence-based approaches that protect and promote the rights of sex workers are rare and the few that exist are under resourced.
Poverty in many countries, lack of formal job opportunities and migration mean that many people enter the sex trade as a viable economic endeavour. However sex work is dangerous and violent and many sex workers are abused, harassed, blackmailed and some murdered by the police, other law enforcers and their clients. Gender based violence and vulnerability are hallmarks of sex work throughout the continent.
The emergence of representative sex worker organisations is relatively recent on the continent, with some stronger organisations beginning to be vocal. The African Sex Worker Alliance forms an umbrella organisation ASWA of over 60 members representing 15 countries in Africa. Particularly active in East and Southern Africa, it has strengthened its membership in West and Central Africa. It aims to strengthen the voices, to empower and to advocate for and advance the health and human rights of female, male and transgender sex workers including those living with HIV and using drugs through networking, movement building, and the development of partnerships. However, lack of resources, human resource capacity deficits and the emerging nature of many sex worker organisations mean that advocacy, support and services for sex workers have been limited and there is an urgent need to build the sex worker movement.