You might not have heard about this, but Senegal has quietly led advancements in West Africa through its partnerships with the rest of the world. However, the country isn’t just blazing the trail of progressiveness in its manufacturing and infrastructure, it is also taking a long hard look at the legacy of colonial laws and edicts, and tweaking them one by one, to ensure that they remain not just relevant, but useful in a 21st century world with its own unique challenges. They measured an unprecedented level of success, especially when it comes to sex and sexuality.
According to a recent The Economist article, only 7% of Senegal’s sex worker population (prostitutes for the plebeians) have HIV or any other sexually transmitted illness. This is a stark contrast to the average 37% anywhere else on the continent. How have they managed this?
They have kept a colonial law from France that required the country to register all prostitutes with the government, long after all other colonial countries dropped their variations of this law under pressure from religious groups. By protecting the rights of sex workers in Senegal and allowing them access to much-needed counselling and health care, the country has taken all of the stigma out of sex work, defanging it instead of weaponising it. That lack of stigma means sex workers can earn a living legitimately and customers can approach sex workers without fear of litigation.
Nigeria has no reason whatsoever to continue to wallow in its hypocrisy. None! Senegal has at least a 90% Muslim population, and unlike Christianity that gives much leeway for sex work (a number prominent Biblical characters were sex workers) Islam is pretty clear about where it stands on sex work. Yet, Senegal’s government has been able to adequately separate the state from religious sentiment and its people are better for it. Nigeria and the rest of Africa is sitting on a simmering cauldron of sexually transmitted diseases, a cauldron we refuse to acknowledge or even pre-empt.
Perhaps its time we actually took Senegal seriously, instead of pretending everything is fine in our backyard.
Edwin Okolo is an author and journalist who has worked with YNaija, TheNativemag and the Naked Convos.