Earlier this week, the Economist published an article on the status of sex workers in Senegal, which has a ‘legalised’ model. It states that: “Senegal is the only place in Africa where sex workers are regulated by the state.”
The experience of many sex workers in much of Africa is very negative, due to widespread criminalisation of sex work, discrimination, stigma, violence against sex workers, and poor health-care systems. Senegal is the only African country where sex work is legalised, having passed its current law in 1969. Under Senegal's Penal Code (articles 318 to 327) sex workers must be at least 21 years old, register with the police, carry a valid health card, and test negative for sexually transmitted infections in order to be allowed to work legally. Sex workers must also report to designated registration sites for regular health check-ups, and the law requires sex workers to acquire keep current health books in order to avoid arrest. Police monitor sex workers to ensure that they attend these regular health check-ups. Identification cards confirm they are sex workers and give the sex workers access to some free health care, condoms and education initiatives.
The Senegalese system has its roots in the country’s colonial history. French legislation regulated prostitution ostensibly in order to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, and this was kept on the books after independence in 1960, when many other Francophone countries dropped their equivalent laws. In the 1980s, Senegal responded to the HIV epidemic sweeping across the continent by establishing a range of policies to counter the threat, and to target prevention and treatment at vulnerable populations.
One of these measures involved revamping the regulation of sex work, which under French rule had required sex workers to register with the authorities. The system was reinforced after the HIV epidemic and the authorities tried to get as many sex workers as possible to sign up. According to UNAIDS, only 7% of Senegal’s sex worker population have HIV or any other sexually transmitted illness, which is a stark contrast to the average 37% anywhere else on the continent.
Sex worker groups have voiced concerns about the legalised model for sex work, as it can have a negative effect on sex workers’ working conditions and access to healthcare. It has also been criticised by sex worker groups as it often leaves some sex workers vulnerable to exploitation, particularly those who are unable to work within the legal system (for example, those who are unable to publicly register that they are sex workers).
Mandatory testing and treatment practices are also against internationally recognised guidance as defined in the SWIT. In Senegal health check-ups are mandatory every month a woman wants her sex worker identity card to stay valid (the sex workers found without an identity card can be arrested or fined). However, if a sex worker contracts HIV, she will not have her license revoked completely, but instead will be given free antiretroviral treatment, and then allowed to continue practising. The country’s different approach is often linked to the low prevalence of HIV among sex workers in the country, which between 2002 and 2016 fell by 21% to 7%.
Sex workers still face many barriers to full participation in Senegalese society. Sex work is still broadly condemned, and women who engage in sex work occupy a socially marginal status. Sex workers’ experiences often contradict much of the praise given to the Senegalese model to regulating their work. Many sex workers do not sign up to the initiative because they face discrimination and marginalisation. Many also fear that registration could count against them in future. NGOs say police officers often abuse their power, demanding sex and money from sex workers. The system only applies to women, and only those over 21 – leaving male sex workers and younger sex workers without support and vulnerable to arrest.
Nonetheless, in comparison with other African nations, Senegal’s system seems to have contributed to impressive HIV outcomes: an overall prevalence of 0.4% (the average in sub-Saharan Africa is 4.3%).