What do African sex workers really need? A 33-year-old sex worker and activist in Kenya, Phelister Abdalla, put it plainly: “ … to live freely in this world.” Chi Adanna Mgbako’s revolutionary book takes that response as its title, which is fitting, given that the body of research she presents includes long narratives told by her research subjects: sex worker activists in Africa.

In this week’s installment of the African Politics Summer Reading Spectacular, we feature a Q&A with Mgbako, author of “To Live Freely in This World: Sex Worker Activism in Africa.”

Kim Yi Dionne: In your book, two events prominently feature as moments for collective action: the International Day to End Violence against Sex Workers [Dec. 17] and the International Day for Sex Workers [June 2]. Do you know how these international dates came about — who picked them and why those dates in particular? In short: Is there some political-historical event that these dates commemorate?

Chi Adanna Mgbako: The International Day for Sex Workers commemorates what’s commonly accepted as the symbolic beginning of the modern global sex workers’ rights movement. On June 2, 1975, a hundred sex workers in Lyons, France, occupied St. Nizier Church to protest excessive fines and physical abuse by police officers.

That activism sparked an international movement for sex workers’ rights that has spread to every corner of the world. Throughout the 1970s, sex workers in Europe and the United States began to form sex worker collectives speaking out against the criminalization of sex work and demanding the realization of their rights. By the 1980s, sex workers in Asia and Latin America also began formally organizing, and the 1990s saw the beginning of formal sex worker activism in Kenya, Mali and South Africa.

In the past 10 years or so, sex worker activism has exploded throughout Africa, and there are now sex-worker-led organizations in African countries as diverse as Botswana, Cameroon, DRC, Ethiopia, Mauritius, Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda, Uganda, and many more.

In Kenya alone, there are now over 80 sex-worker-led collectives. All of these groups are advocating for their right to work, to access de-stigmatized health care, and to live free from violence and discrimination. It’s also important to note that outside of formal civil society actors like sex-worker-led NGOs, sex workers informally organize and resist criminalization by supporting each other financially, socially, and emotionally in their local communities. This informal activism is an indispensable part of movement building.

The International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers actually began in the United States. In the 1980s and ’90s, a serial killer in Seattle murdered dozens of sex workers, and it took two decades before he was arrested. After he was finally caught, he said that part of the reason he targeted sex workers was because he knew he could get away with it.

There is an enormous amount of violence in the sex industry, and this violence is directly related to the fact that sex work is criminalized throughout most of the world and sex workers face crushing social stigma.

When I interviewed sex workers on the streets of Mauritius, in hotels in Kenya or in brothels in South Africa, they talked about violence at the hands of police, discrimination from health-care workers, stigma from the community, lack of access to justice when they are the victims of crime and violence from criminals posing as clients.

The International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers is a reminder that in most of our societies, we’ve continued to pursue laws and policies that guarantee that sex workers will continue to be victims of these types of abuses. It’s also a way to remember and commemorate the many people within the sex industry that we have loved and lost at the hands of the carceral state.

KYD: Your book is nonstandard for an academic text in that it features very long narratives told by the research subjects themselves. Why did you write it in this way?

CAM: When the mainstream media highlights sex work, there’s rarely mention of the fact that this decades-long global movement for sex workers’ rights exists, even though in terms of sheer geographic diversity, it’s one of the largest and most dynamic labor rights movements in the world.

By making sex workers’ voices the heart of my book, I’m repudiating this silencing. And by focusing on African sex worker activists specifically, I’m also responding to anti-prostitution advocates who incorrectly portray the global sex workers’ rights movement as dominated by Western, white, middle-class, cisgender women in the sex industry as a way of dismissing the movement as “non-representative.” Tell that to male sex worker activists in Kenya or to transgender female sex worker activists in Namibia or to street-based sex worker activists in Uganda.

The global sex workers’ rights movement is one of the most diverse and inclusive social justice movements in the world, comprising sex workers of various races, ethnicities, nationalities, sexual orientations, gender identities and classes. Some of the most vibrant sex worker activism is happening in the Global South — on the streets of Nairobi where hundreds of sex workers often protest en masse, in the halls of the South African Parliament where sex worker activists have pursued a law reform campaign aimed at decriminalizing sex work, on the radios and in the newspapers in Namibia where sex worker activists often engage the media to educate the public about the state-sanctioned violence sex workers face.

By weaving narratives from my research subjects throughout the book, I’m trying to underscore the primacy of the rich voices and experiences of sex worker activists that for too long have been disregarded in sex work law and policy discussions. Their voices must be at the center.

KYD: One thing about your book that really resonated with my own work was the misalignment of priorities between sex workers and some of the people claiming to advocate on their behalf. For example, on page 51, you write, “Because academics and activists have long focused primarily on debates about whether prostitution is inherently harmful, we’ve spent less time talking about the abuses that sex workers consistently highlight as their primary areas of concern. … ” and then you list serious issues like police abuse and client violence.

Later in the book, this disconnect between what sex workers want for themselves and what others want for them is made clear. One of the sex worker activists who was a key informant for your study, Peninah Mwangi of Nairobi, Kenya, recalled a conversation she had with a sex worker who said, “HIV, I can live with it for the next 10 years, but [from] the violence I will die tomorrow” [page 97]. As you point out, while women working in bars were navigating the AIDS epidemic, they viewed the violence they were experiencing as a more pressing issue.

As I’m sure you know, there is significant funding for HIV/AIDS programming geared toward sex workers. If you had the ear of donor agencies or nongovernmental organizations funding HIV/AIDS programming to better suit sex workers’ needs, how might you encourage them to direct their support?

CAM: HIV activism played a key role in opening the door to sex workers’ rights activism in Africa. It provided a platform for sex workers to begin to voice their concerns. But what was very clear from the beginning is that you can’t talk about tackling the issue of HIV within sex work communities if you aren’t willing to confront how the criminalization of sex work makes African sex workers highly vulnerable to HIV.

HIV is often a window into who has power within a society and who does not, and sex workers remain some of the most marginalized communities. They are highly vulnerable to HIV because they face severe discrimination in health-care settings that push them away from HIV prevention and treatment, because they experience high rates of sexual abuse at the hands of police officers and criminals posing as clients, because when they attempt to report violence against them, they’re often ignored, which sends the message that violence against sex workers is not only acceptable but encouraged, and because police routinely confiscate their condoms to use as evidence of prostitution.

So in fighting HIV, it’s not enough for donors to just give money to sex worker collectives to distribute condoms, even though this type of health outreach work is incredibly important. Donors must also fund sex worker activism fighting against criminalization and in favor of law reform efforts that would help lessen the violence and discrimination that make sex workers vulnerable to HIV.

Unfortunately, because of stigma, sex worker rights activism remains some of the most underfunded advocacy in the world. As it becomes a mainstream human rights issue (influential groups like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, UNAIDS, the World Health Organization, and the Global Commission on HIV and the Law have in recent years called for the decriminalization of sex work), I hope that this will change.

KYD: A student of mine — Eliza Cummings [Class of 2017] — read your book this summer and wondered if you could answer her question, which draws on two primary case studies in your book to think about African countries not covered in your analysis. She asks, “What do you think is the way forward for emerging sex workers’ rights movements in other African countries? The more top-down South African model or the more bottom-up or grass-roots organizing strategies of Kenya?”

CAM: Ultimately, the most important thing is that sex workers themselves dictate the direction of their movements for social justice. Although the beginning of the sex workers’ rights movement in South Africa was more of a top-down approach, over the years it has definitely become more grass-roots in nature and now has one of the strongest sex worker-led collectives on the continent. Kenya from the beginning was a beautiful example of grass-roots mutual aid. For those of us working as allies in the movement, our role is to stand in solidarity and to help amplify sex workers’ voices.

KYD: It was through reading your book that I learned how significant the difference is between decriminalizing sex work and legalizing it.

Under decriminalization, governments “remove criminal laws attached to sex work between consenting adults and protect sex workers … by bringing them under the aegis of employment labor laws and policies via minimal state regulation.” [page 150].

Legalization, on the other hand often results in “hyper-regulations of the sex industry, like mandatory health testing of sex workers and formal government registration of sex workers that in fact limit sex workers’ rights.” [page 150].

You write that many sex worker organizations — including those in Africa — advocate for decriminalization over legalization. You also share examples of countries that have decriminalized sex work [e.g., New Zealand in 2003] and legalized it [e.g., Senegal in 1969].

Is there a resource you could point readers to through which they could get a global sense of where sex work is illegal, decriminalized and legalized?

CAM: The Sex Work Law Map is a recently released tool that can help readers understand the state of sex work law in countries throughout the world. What sex workers have been telling us for decades is that prostitution isn’t killing them — criminalization is. In South Africa, sex workers have been leading a sophisticated law reform campaign to decriminalize sex work. The name of the campaign is “Asijiki,” which in Zulu means, “no turning back.” I’m so inspired by the fact that African sex work activists throughout the continent, despite experiencing crushing marginalization and criminalization, are moving forward with steely determination and unrelenting hope.

Chi Adanna Mgbako is a clinical professor of law and director of the Walter Leitner International Human Rights Clinic in the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice at Fordham University. You can follow her on Twitter at @chiadanna.

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