17 sex workers from three countries in Africa are gathering in Nairobi for the 19th Sex Workers Academy Africa (SWAA) in Nairobi.
Participants are drawn from Mali, Swaziland and Kenya. In a weeklong training, participants will be taken through sessions aimed at building skills and knowledge to influence policy and service delivery in their countries. The goal of the Academy is to strengthen sex worker-led organisations and communities across Africa, building capacity on local, national and regional levels.
The Academy provides sex workers with tools to advocate for and ensure that HIV and sex work-related policies, and HIV and STI prevention, treatment, care and support programming are rights-based, and designed and implemented with the meaningful participation of sex workers.
The overall objective is to strengthen the sex workers’ rights movement across Africa, through building the capacity of sex workers to engage in policy, programme development, and implementation, and through strengthening sex worker led organisations, and national sex workers’ networks.
To end this year’s SWAA, Mali and Swaziland are participating. On one hand, sex work is not criminalised in Mali, but challenges abound mainly due to religious and cultural barriers.
Sex work is legal, but soliciting of services of sex workers services is illegal. Like in many African countries, sex workers in Mali are seen as drivers of HIV infections. In this regard, sex workers are issued with special cards to enable them seek services at government health centers. However, due to deep religious beliefs, most sex workers operate underground and unable to access essential commodities.
Like in many countries in West Africa, Mali sex workers are caught in between government enforcement of human trafficking laws. Reports show that there is an influx of migrant sex workers from Nigeria and other West African countries mainly to tourist spots and near the UN peacekeepers’ base.
Mali is a source, transit, and destination country for women and children subjected to sex trafficking.
Human trafficking is further fueled by political instability that has seen Islamic Jihadists take control of parts of the country.
In Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) sex work is illegal and largely not recognised. Law enforces especially use anti-prostitution laws dating back to 1889 and cites loitering, ‘skimpy dressing’ and idling as some of the things that a sex worker can be arrested for.
Additionally, sex workers who are arrested on these claims are taken before a national court where they have no chance of defending themselves because they are expected to plead to the charges preferred against them.
For this reason, they are stigmatised and marginalised, which prevent them from seeking legal help and health services. Further, from time to time, police conduct swoops at hot spots.
During the swoops, possession of condoms used as evidence to arrest sex workers. Due to constant harassment, most sex workers are underground, a factor that policy makers use to deny their existence and exclude them from accessing health and other basic services.