Advocating for Decriminalisation of Sex Work in Africa

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The sex worker rights movement in Africa has been advocating for sex work to be recognised as work for nearly twenty years now. With regard to sex work, African countries fall in three broadly distinct groups. First, those countries that criminalise the sex worker; second, those countries that do not criminalise sex work but do not recognise it as work (e.g. DRC, Burundi, Cameroun, Mali, Algeria); the third group recognises sex work as work even though it is still considered to be an illegal activity (e.g. South Africa, Kenya).  

Currently, in the DRC there is a risk that after two years of successful advocacy for the protection of sex workers and improved access to healthcare for sex workers and LGBTI, religious fundamentalism is influencing politicians to implement laws that criminalise homosexuality and sex work. A group of parliamentarians in DRC have already proposed laws similar to those recently implemented in Uganda. How can sex worker rights activists advocate against this type of proposed legislation?

In Namibia, next year, the Law Reform Development Commission (LRDC) will be working on three pieces of legislation, one of which proposes to legalise sex work as well as abortion; this was revealed by LRDC chairperson Sacky Shanghala during an in-depth interview recently.

Shanghala said he was happy to see City Police Chief Abraham Kanime engage in talks with sex workers recently.
Shanghala said: “So it is time to start thinking about the legalisation of the profession.”

This could be an opportunity for the Namibian sex worker rights movement to present to politicians and the LRDC an alternative approach to criminalising sex work.

Recently, NSWP member African Sex Worker Alliance, ASWA, held an African Sex Worker Academy with the aim to build the capacity of activists and African sex worker rights organisations. The aim is to create a task force of sex worker rights activists with the objective to develop different advocacy strategies for different countries depending on the legal framework around sex work. Many sex worker rights groups do not have effective advocacy strategies for lobbying parliamentarians and others when States consider punitive sex work legislation. Building capacity within the sex worker rights movement through programmes such as the African Sex Worker Academy led by sex workers is vital for the development of effective advocacy strategies to demand that the human rights of sex workers be upheld and consequently that the criminalisation of sex work is in direct contrast with a rights-based approach to sex work.