STUDY: Sex Workers In Africa Face ‘Profound’ Exploitation and ’Repeated’ Human Rights Violations

A study of sex workers in four African countries has found out that sex workers face gross human rights violations and abuse due to the criminal nature of their work.

‘Human rights abuses and collective resilience among sex workers in four African countries: a qualitative study’ released in early August by a team of researchers who talked to female, male and transgender sex workers in Kenya, South Africa, Uganda and Zimbabwe, found that unlawful arrests and detention, violence, extortion as well as societal exclusion ‘had an extreme impact on the physical, mental and social wellbeing of this population.’

‘The majority of countries in the world have punitivelaws against sex work,’ the report states, ‘… virtually throughout Africa, this occupation is an explicit criminal offence.’

‘This criminalization and the intense stigma attached to the profession shapres interactions between sex workers and their clients, family, fellow community members, and societal structures such as the police and social services.’

The report further explored the impact of HIV and how most socities view sex workers in regards to HIV transmission. ‘The legal status of sex work and the entrenched stigma and discrimination associated with the profession in Africa means that sex workers have historically beenviewed as “reservoirs of sexually transmitted disease”, and blamed for the continent’s HIV crisis.’

The report also looked into reasons why people engaged in sex work. ‘Although many were driven to sell sex to escape severe poverty and unemployment, several sex workers reported that the work was attractive because it had given them financial independence and the ability to improve their economic circumstances.’ One participant in the study said: “My money comes right there and then, unlike other jobs where the money will come late” Another stated: “I manage my own business – my money is not taxed.”

The money acquired from sex work is used for various purposes, inclusding paying school fees, support family members, among toehrs, the report said. ‘A few used money from sex work to create alternative income-earning ventures, such as buying sewing machines or additional land to rent, or opening a bar.’

Apart from societal stigma, equally common was physical abuse by police, often taking extreme forms. Virtually all sex workers interviewed had experienced being beaten and assaulted by police at some point in their working lives.

While gang rape perpetrated by clients was distressingly common, gang rape by police and related authorities was also reported.

Male and transgender sex workers faced further humiliation on account of homophobia and transphobia, the report shared. ‘With male and transgender sex workers, abuse often took on an added dimension of homophobia. A 29 year old transgender sex worker in Uganda recounted a particularly humiliating experience: “They [the police] arrested me and undressed me and asked me whether I was a woman or man. They beat me and detained me in prison.”

Access to justice was also hampered as most sex workers reported that when they approached the police to report abuse, ‘the response was usually negative and generated further trauma.’

In addition to the abuses sex workers faced, the report further investigated the role of other actors – such as landlords, hotel and bar staff, security guards and brothel owners – in the sex work industry saying ‘they are either centrally involved in the sex trade or operate on its fringes.’

‘Our research found that these individuals frequently take advantage of sex workers’ vulnerable position and the illegality of sex work to extort money or sex.’

Underlying their stories, however, are narratives of resilience and resistance, the report stated. ‘Sex workers drew on their own individual survival strategies and

informal forms of support and very occasionally opt to seek recourse through formal channels.’

‘They generally recognize the benefits of unified actions in assisting them to counter risks in their environment and mobilise against human rights violations, but note how the fluctuant and stigmatised nature of their profession often undermines collective action.’

The report concluded by calling for careful documentation of abuses targeting sex workers as it was critical in advocacy and legislation efforts.

‘There is an important role for scholarship that catalogues how sex workers on the continent experience and respond to human rights violations. Such documentation must be used to guide the direction of local advocacy efforts and support the development of context-specific, evidence-based interventions to reduce violence against sex workers. Together with such contributions, it is hoped that this research will add further impetus to arguments for much-needed legal reforms.’

You can read the full (PDF) report here.