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SAHARA J. 2012;9(3):167-72. doi: 10.1080/17290376.2012.743809.

HIV prevention among female sex workers in Africa.

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Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation, Cape Town, South Africa.


Sex work occurs to meet the demand for sexual services and is a universal phenomenon. In Africa sex work takes many forms and is an important source of income for many women. Yet sex worker reproductive health needs remain largely unmet. The criminalisation of sex work; community and service provider stigma; violence; substance use and limited access to health services and prevention commodities contribute to the high HIV burden evident among female sex workers in Africa. Following UNAIDS' three pillar approach to HIV prevention and sex work we present an overview of current opportunities, barriers and suggestions to improve HIV prevention policy and programming for sex work in Africa. Universal access to a comprehensive package of HIV services is the first pillar. Reproductive health commodities; voluntary and anonymous HIV counselling and testing; treatment of sexually transmitted infections, HIV and opportunistic infections; harm reduction for substance use and psychosocial support services make up the recommended package of services. The second pillar is a sex worker-supportive environment. The inclusion of sex worker programmes within national HIV strategic planning; sex worker-led community mobilisation and the establishment of sex work community networks (comprised of sex workers, health service providers, law enforcers and other stakeholders) enable effective programme implementation and are recommended. The reduction of sex worker vulnerability and addressing structural issues form the final pillar. The decriminalisation of sex work; development of supportive policy; gender equality and economic development are key factors that need to be addressed to increase sex worker resilience. Evidence supports the public health benefit of human rights based approaches to HIV prevention; moralistic and restrictive policy and laws towards sex work are harmful and should be removed. The establishment of these pillars will increase sex worker safety and enhance the inclusiveness of the HIV response.

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