On a hot afternoon in a suburb of Dakar, Binta is among a group of women waiting to be seen in the back of a Senegalese government clinic. When her name is called, she is ushered into a check-up room, tested for a series of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and handed free condoms.
At the end of the appointment, the nurse stamps her identification card called a “carnet Sanitaire,” which she is required to carry as a registered, legal sex worker.
The 24-year-old single mother travels over an hour and a half by taxi to get here, even though it means she’s sometimes late for her evening computer science classes. On the ride through Dakar’s traffic-snarled streets, she flips through photos of her 4-year-old son on her phone. For Binta, it’s worth the long commute: “I go here because it’s discreet.”
She first came to Sébikhotane clinic last fall, after signing up for a government scheme that regulates the sex industry in Senegal. Under the program, sex workers must register with the police, attend mandatory monthly sexual health screenings, test negative for STIs and carry a valid ID card confirming their health status. If a sex worker contracts HIV, they’re given free antiretroviral therapy treatment before being allowed to continue soliciting clients.
Binta didn’t think twice about joining the program, convinced that it would help safeguard her from sexually transmitted diseases and abuse.
It’s also the only nation on the continent where sex work is legal and regulated by health policy, according to Global Network which advocates for decriminalization of the profession.
Some public health experts suggest that Senegal’s registration system opened a dialogue about sexual behavior and laid the groundwork for future HIV prevention programs targeting vulnerable populations.
Sex work is still criminalized in Senegal for those who are unregistered, which effectively creates a two-tiered system in which “clandestine” prostitutes fall through the cracks.