Senegal is the only African country in which prostitution is both legal and regulated.
Criminalised in most African states, prostitution or sex work remains a taboo topic, with violence against women, anti-prostitution laws and poor healthcare systems making Africa a dangerous place to be a sex worker.
However, this west African country seems to be doing things differently.
Reports by UNAIDS reveal that there are an estimated 20 000 prostitutes in Senegal, with the average profile of a sex worker being 28 years old and female.
According to The Economist, the Senegalese system has its roots in the country’s colonial legacy.
French legislation that regulated prostitution to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases was kept on the books after independence in 1960.
According to media reports, Senegal’s legalisation and regulation of sex work has been applauded for controlling the nation’s HIV rate.
At 0.4%, HIV prevalence in the country is significantly lower than many of its west and central African neighbours.
So, what does regulation of sex work actually mean?
Under the programme initiated by the Senegalese government, in order to enjoy protection in the industry, sex workers must register with the police, attend mandatory monthly sexual health screenings, test negative for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and carry a valid ID card confirming their health status, according to a 2019 CNN report.
If sex workers contract HIV, they are given free antiretroviral therapy treatment before being allowed to continue soliciting clients.
Sex workers are also given free condoms.
However, in a country where 95% of the population is Muslim, registering as a sex worker is not the easiest, especially given the stigma associated with it.
Card-carrying sex workers also face potential exploitation by police and become easy targets despite the protection they enjoy. Many view the “card” as a means of public identification despite many women hiding the fact that they are registered sex workers for fear of rejection by the community.
Meanwhile, sex work remains unlawful for those who do not register under the state. Many women feel that by not registering under the state’s programme, they are able to work freely, without fear of being “labelled” and “checked up on”, and they are willing to remain incognito despite the benefits that the state offers.
So, what can other African countries learn from Senegal?
Well, according to Human Rights Watch, no government should be telling consenting adults who they can have sexual relations with and on what terms.
In South Africa, the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (Sweat) has been advocating for the decriminalisation of adult sex work.
The organisation was founded in the early 1990s by male sex worker Shane Petzer and clinical psychologist Ilse Pauw. The pair sought to establish a safe sex education project for adult sex workers.
The criminalisation of sex work has been in place since 1957 in South Africa and has resulted in high levels of violence, a lack of access to basic services, including health services, and abuse of sex workers.
“Under the criminalised model, sex workers fear arrest and suffer abuse from the police, including rape, violence and being made to pay bribes.
“They often choose not to report crimes out of fear, making them open to violence from clients and other people.
“Sex workers have little or no power and fear violence, and this makes it hard for sex workers to demand condom use,” Sweat’s advocacy and communications officer, Megan Lessing, said.
She said sex workers may avoid carrying condoms because these can be taken by the police or used as “evidence” of law-breaking. Sex workers are often badly treated by public services, including health services.
Lessing told the African News Agency (ANA) that sex workers are seen as “easy targets”, and while it may be difficult to prove someone has had sex for money, police will often target sex workers and charge them with loitering and public nuisance.
Lessing said many sex workers in South Africa have reported being harassed, robbed, assaulted or raped by police officers, as well as being falsely arrested or forced to pay bribes. Unnecessary force, too, is often used when arresting sex workers.
Lessing said the fear instilled by the police also brings about a much greater risk: sexually transmitted diseases.
“Many police officers in South Africa see condoms as ‘evidence’ that someone is a sex worker and seize them or even arrest the person carrying them. This means that sex workers are less likely to carry condoms and, as a result, are at greater risk for HIV and other STIs,” Lessing said.
According to an estimation study from 2013, South Africa has between 158000 and 182000 sex workers.
“Under decriminalisation, the buying and selling of sex becomes legal. Employment of sex workers is also legal. Sex work would be controlled by general labour law.
“This means that sex workers can organise legally (form a union).
“It also means that employers (for example, brothel managers) must obey health and safety labour laws. Force, trafficking and other abusive labour practices would be illegal,” Lessing told ANA.
She said because decriminalisation has been shown to lessen violence and abuse and increase access to services, it is supported by major human rights organisations, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and South Africa’s Commission for Gender Equality, as well as health-focused organisations such as UNaids, the World Health Organization and the journal The Lancet.
There are also many organisations around the world that are led by sex workers or work with sex workers, and these almost all support decriminalisation.
Lessing said it was 18 times more likely for a female sex worker to be murdered than any other woman, and the violence experienced by sex workers was pervasive, be it from violent clients, intimate partner violence, police brutality or stigmatisation.