BACKGROUND: 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 social services.
METHODS: 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.
RESULTS: 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.
CONCLUSION: 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.