What is the biggest problem for sex workers? Is it sex work in itself? Is it violence and abusive clients? Chi Adanna Mgbako argues that when we listen to the multiplicity of sex worker voices, we learn that violence is not inherent to prostitution. We also learn that the main problem for sex workers is not their job as such, nor their clients. The source of abuse lies elsewhere—it is structural. Abuse follows laws and policies that criminalise sex work and thereby marginalise sex workers. Yet, within the midst of violence, discrimination and stigma, Chi Adanna Mgbako’s important book is also about how surprising and beautiful responses emerge.

The introductory descriptions of the loud and fearless crowds stomping through the streets of Nairobi during the 17 December protest March in 2012,Footnote 1 carrying red umbrellas and rainbow-coloured flags, paint a symbolic picture of the developments that African sex worker movements have undergone over the last decade. Three years earlier, the protest was a silent March, but now sex workers throughout Africa are no longer quiet. With the recent release of Amnesty International’s policy of decriminalisation of adult sex work, the topic of decriminalisation is as heated as ever. To Live Freely in This World, which centres on the African sex worker movements fighting for decriminalisation of sex work, is thus highly topical, not only because it presents compelling arguments about the consequences of the illegality of sex work for people in the business, but also because it is built on the voices of the actual people involved: the sex workers. Mgbako pushes back against the dangerous notion that all sex workers want to be rescued from sex work, because at times those who want to rescue sex workers from sex work—for instance abolitionist, anti-trafficking saviours—end up being the biggest problem. Such rescuing may end up in deportation or leave sex workers more financially vulnerable. In fact, Mgbako finds that no reliable data suggest that rehabilitation programmes in Africa, or elsewhere, succeed in either implementing alternative livelihoods or reducing violations of sex worker rights.

Mgbako is a woman of Nigerian heritage, an Africanist, human rights law professor and advocate who works in solidarity with sex worker activists. The argument presented in the book, by both Mgbako and the activists she interviews, is that sex work should be regarded as legitimate work and decriminalised in order to secure sex workers from violence and violations of their rights. Based on ethnographic data collected through fieldwork in seven African countries,Footnote 2 which included interviews with more than 160 sex workers, Mgbako explores the questions: How can people involved in the sex industry be safe? How can they have more power over their labour? And importantly, how can sex workers who are not ‘strong’ and who have not ‘overcome’ the obstacles they have faced and have no activist stories of triumph, be included in the fight? Exploring these questions, we come to understand how the rising sex worker movements in Africa in the last decade have positioned themselves as new and important players in the global sex workers’ rights struggle.

The book examines long-standing feminist debates on sex work, slavery and rescue in an African context, and shows through ethnographic descriptions and narratives that when we avoid the pitfall of telling ‘the single story’, a diversity in sex workers’ backgrounds and reasons for entering the sex industry is revealed. Mgbako describes various forms of injustice that African sex workers face—police violence, client abuse, social stigma and health care discrimination—and she convincingly relates them back to the main issue of the lack of human rights caused by the criminalisation of sex work. This argument is further developed through a focus on the intersections of multiple stigmas for transsexual, queer, gender nonconforming, HIV-positive and migrant sex workers, illustrated by harrowing stories of violence and abuse. Mgbako traces the brief history of these diverse movements with links to anti-colonial and anti-apartheid struggles, and shows how the mobilisation of sex workers is taking place at both formal and informal levels. Mgbako argues that because the traditional abolitionist feminist debate on sex work—particularly as it was and is played out in the US—was never fully replicated in Africa, sex worker rights advocates have been able to exercise and claim a more dominant voice in the African sex work debate, thus opening a window of hope for sex worker movements.

The book aims at providing a counter-narrative to the often simplistic depictions in which the sex worker is either portrayed as a passive victim by Western anti-trafficking organisations or as immoral and ‘un-African’ by African media as part of a public and political ‘whorephobia’. Although the narratives include many stories of suffering, they do not lead to the conclusion that sex workers are ‘broken people’ in need of rescue. Instead they are used to show how circuits of political injustice, structural violence and abuse shape and strengthen the sex workers’ struggle, agency and resistance and, thus, that they contribute importantly to critical anti-trafficking studies. Furthermore, Mgbako provides insight in the ways that Western anti-trafficking and aid policies anchor themselves in the Global South, such as the US ‘anti-prostitution pledge’ which prevents NGOs from providing HIV/AIDS health care for sex workers.Footnote 3 But the Global South is not depicted as mere passive receivers of Global North anti-trafficking policies; rather, the book shows how these policies and the challenges they bring inspire mobilisation and South-South collaborations, moving away from the asymmetrical academic focus on anti-trafficking from a Global North perspective.

Mgbako contributes to closing a gap in knowledge on sex work and sex work activism in Africa. The book’s anchoring in personal stories and experiences of sex workers is an attempt to move away from the tendency of non-sex workers to speak for sex workers, and to let the latter speak for themselves. Fortunately, as is shown throughout the book, African sex workers are independently and fiercely creating more and more platforms from where to speak and be heard.