Fiona Scorgie, Katie Vasey, Eric Harper, Marlise Richter, Prince Nare, Sian Maseko and Matthew F Chersich (3013): Human rights abuses and collective resilience among sex workers in four African countries: a qualitative study, in: Globalization and Health 2013, 9:33.
Sex work is a criminal offence, virtually throughout Africa. This criminalisation and the
intense stigma attached to the profession shapes interactions between sex workers and their
clients, family, fellow community members, and societal structures such as the police and
We explore the impact of violence and related human rights abuses on the lives of sex
workers, and how they have responded to these conditions, as individuals and within small
collectives. These analyses are based on data from 55 in-depth interviews and 12 focus group
discussions with female, male and transgender sex workers in Kenya, South Africa, Uganda
and Zimbabwe. Data were collected by sex worker outreach workers trained to conduct
qualitative research among their peers.
In describing their experiences of unlawful arrests and detention, violence, extortion,
vilification and exclusions, participants present a picture of profound exploitation and
repeated human rights violations. This situation has had an extreme impact on the physical,
mental and social wellbeing of this population. Overall, the article details the multiple effects
of sex work criminalisation on the everyday lives of sex workers and on their social
interactions and relationships. Underlying their stories, however, are narratives of resilience
and resistance. Sex workers in our study draw 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.
While criminal laws urgently need reform, supporting sex work self-organisation and
community-building are key interim strategies for safeguarding sex workers’ human rights
and improving health outcomes in these communities. If developed at sufficient scale and
intensity, sex work organisations could play a critical role in reducing the present harms
caused by criminalisation and stigma.
This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0),
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