Impacts of Colonial Legacies on the Rights and Security of Sex Workers in Southern Africa


  • Carolien Aantjes
  • Tamaryn Crankshaw
  • Jane Freedman



This article will explore the relationship between sex work and the law in four Southern African countries – Madagascar, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe – to shed light on the persistent barriers to promoting the rights and security of sex workers. In these countries, as across Southern Africa, criminal laws on sex work introduced by colonial powers have profoundly shaped contemporary societal attitudes towards sex work and women who sell sex. More recently, the question of sex work has often been linked to HIV and AIDS and decriminalisation has been promoted as part of a wider strategy to protect ‘key populations’, including sex workers, who are perceived as being at greater risk of HIV infection. Based on our research with young women engaged in selling sex, we found that repression continues in various forms within and outside of the law. Though sex work is no longer fully criminalised in most countries in the region, the relics of the colonial past permeate contemporary norms and attitudes to sex work thus locking the selling of sex within the grey areas of the law and contributing to situations of vulnerability for sex workers. Our four case studies demonstrate that transformations in dominant social norms and representations around sex work have been far slower and less far reaching than many assumed they would be, even in the countries which have adopted more progressive laws and policies. The situations of vulnerability experienced by sex workers also escalated during the COVID-19 crisis, highlighting the critical need for state intervention to improve their legal, economic and social position.