Estimating the number of sex workers in South Africa: rapid population size estimation

AIDS Behav. 2015 Feb:19 Suppl 1:S3-15. doi: 10.1007/s10461-014-0981-y.


Although recognized as a vulnerable population, there is no national population size estimate for sex workers in South Africa. A rapid sex worker enumeration exercise was undertaken in twelve locations across the country based on principles of participatory mapping and Wisdom of the Crowd. Sites with a range of characteristics were selected, focusing on level of urbanisation, trucking, mining and borders. At each site, sex worker focus groups mapped local hotspots. Interviews with sex workers at identified hotspots were used to estimate the numbers and genders of sex workers working in each. Estimates provided in the literature were combined with enumeration exercise results to define assumptions that could be applied to a national extrapolation. A working estimate was reached of between 131,000 and 182,000 sex worker in South Africa, or between 0.76 and 1 % of the adult female population. The success of the exercise depended on integral involvement of sex worker peer educators and strong ethical considerations.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Female
  • Focus Groups
  • HIV Infections / prevention & control*
  • Health Education
  • Humans
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Mass Screening / methods*
  • Peer Group
  • Population Density
  • Population Surveillance
  • Sex Work / statistics & numerical data*
  • Sex Workers / statistics & numerical data*
  • South Africa
  • Transportation / statistics & numerical data