Programs to improve sex workers’ economic chances succeed and reduce health risks when led by peers, supported by community, study finds

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Alternative sources of income foster sex worker health and safety, but efforts fall short in Africa, according to regional report

EconEmpSW AfricaThe donor-jargon name is “economic empowerment,” but it refers to something many in that world take for granted: The basic components for financial stability that are out of reach for people whose resources are limited by laws, bias, and exploitation. Those components include the ability to open a bank account, get small loans, learn how to take care of money, and get new skills to earn it. For sex workers, the difference those basics add up to can offer chances to avoid dangerous situations, protect their health, make informed choices, and in those ways can make the difference between acquiring the virus that leads to AIDS and staying healthy, accessing treatment or not, and ultimately, between life and death.

Economic Empowerment Programmes for Sex Workers, a report from the Global Network of Sex Work Projects begins by noting that compared to other regions, such opportunities are few in Africa, where the need for effective responses to HIV is greatest. The report looks at findings from case studies of four programs that produced measurable desirable results, and three that failed. RehabRoleAmong the successes were programs that were not only launched and led by sex workers, but also sought and used input from their members, but those characteristics didn’t guarantee success, nor were they the only needed ingredients. An adequate foundation of funding, interaction with other community institutions including police, bars, and government ministries, also were cited as contributing to successes. Among the successes, one non-sex-worker-led program sought the input of sex workers, and exceeded its own goals enrolling 25 women in training that allowed some to rent their own apartments, return to school, and in at least one instance, switch vocations. But, the studies show as well, that programs that set renouncing sex work as a pre-requisite and “rehabilitation” as a goal, failed for that and related reasons that included insufficiently addressing the stigma surrounding sex work, offering inadequate funding and support, and not seeking or using the input of sex worker members.

An accompanying briefing paper, Does Rehabilitation Have a Role? addresses that issue in greater depth, and notes the role that contributing to, rather than addressing stigma against sex work and setting unrealistic expectations of the odds of acquiring skills adequate to immediately replace existing livelihood with minimal training.

Programs described in the report as leading to improved economic and health opportunities were:

  • Nikat, an Ethiopian organization established by sex workers and registered with the Ethiopian government;
  • Survivors, a community-based organization in Kenya launched by a university-based group, but subsequently run by sex workers;
  • Hoymas, a Kenya community-based organization launched and run by male sex workers and people living with HIV;
  • Life Link Organisation, a project supported by Family Health International in Nigeria.

Programs described in the report that ended without attaining goals of economic improvement — or attrition from sex work were:

  • Empowered at Dusk Women’s Association (EADWA), a sex-worker led organization in Uganda that the report found failed to seek participant input, to adequately prepare participants for outdated work that included hair-dressing and arts and crafts, and failed to adequately address community stigma;
  • the economic empowerment program of the National Female Sex Workers Alliance of Malawi, a sex worker led organization supported by The Family Planning Association of Malawi that set rehabilitation as a goal with, the report says inadequate input from the alliance;
  • Management of Young for Rural Development Center, a community-based organization that with support from a faith-based organization set as a goal that 70 percent of sex workers be able to support their families through the sale of used clothing — only 1 percent succeeded.

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