Summary and Keywords
Sex work, the exchange of sexual services for financial or other reward between consenting adults, has existed in Africa in varying forms from precolonial to modern times (with a distinction between sex work/prostitution and child sexual exploitation, trafficking, and transactional sex). Sex work during colonialism was often linked to migration. As the colonial economy grew and as 20th-century war efforts developed, African male migrants were drawn to urban towns, military settlements, and mining camps, which increased opportunities for African women to engage in prostitution as a form of individual and family labor. Sex workers in the colonial period often achieved increased economic and social autonomy by becoming independent heads of households, sending remittances back to their rural families, and accumulating wealth. Colonial regulation of prostitution was often lax until the outbreak of World War II, when colonial administrators became concerned about the spread of sexually transmitted infections among European troops stationed in Africa.
The modern African sex work industry, composed of diverse street-based and venue-based economies, is shaped by labor, migration, and globalization. The widespread criminalization of sex work and the failure of African states to protect sex workers’ rights embolden state and nonstate actors to commit human rights abuses against sex workers. These violations take the form of police and client abuse, lack of access to justice, labor exploitation, and healthcare discrimination, all of which increase sex workers’ vulnerability to HIV/AIDS. In response to these systemic abuses, an African sex worker rights movement emerged in the 1990s and has spread throughout the continent. Sex worker rights activists at the national and pan-African level engage in direct services, legal reform advocacy, and intersectional and global movement-building that reject the stigmatization of sex work and demand the realization and protection of African sex workers’ dignity, human rights, and labor rights.
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