Sexual and reproductive health outcomes among female sex workers in Johannesburg and Pretoria, South Africa: Recommendations for public health programmes

BMC Public Health. 2017 Jul 4;17(Suppl 3):442. doi: 10.1186/s12889-017-4346-0.


Background: The sexual and reproductive health (SRH) status of female sex workers is influenced by a wide range of demographic, behavioural and structural factors. These factors vary considerably across and even within settings. Adopting an overly standardised approach to sex worker programmes may compromise its impact on some sub-groups in local areas.

Methods: Records of female sex workers attending clinic-, community-, or hotel-based health services in Johannesburg (n = 1422 women) and Pretoria (n = 408 women), South Africa were analysed. We describe the population's characteristics and identified factors associated with sexual and reproductive health outcomes, namely HIV status; previous symptomatic sexually transmitted infection (STI); modern contraceptive use and number of child dependents.

Results: The women in Johannesburg were less likely than those in Pretoria to have HIV (42.2% vs 52.9%), or previous symptomatic STIs (44.3% vs. 8.3%), and were 1.4 fold less likely to have child dependents (20.1% vs. 15.3%). About 43% of women in Johannesburg were Zimbabwean and 40% in Pretoria. Of concern, only about 15% of women in both sites were using modern contraceptives. Johannesburg women were also more likely to access health services at a hotel (85.0% vs. 80.6%) or clinic (5.7% vs. 0.5%), to have completed secondary education (57.1% vs. 36.0%), and moved house more than twice during the past year (19.6 vs. 2.0%). In both cities, risk of HIV rose rapidly with age (23.8%-58.2% vs. 22.0%-64.8%). Of interest, HIV prevalence was considerably higher in those with consistent condom use with one's main partner than inconsistent users.

Conclusions: Sex worker populations are heterogeneous. Local health programmes must prioritise services that reflect the variety and complexity of sex worker needs and behaviours, and should be designed in consultation with sex workers. Segmenting sex worker populations according to age, country of origin and place of service delivery, and training healthcare providers accordingly, could help prevent new HIV infections, improve adherence to antiretroviral treatment and increase uptake of SRH services.

Keywords: Female sex workers; HIV; Prevention; Sexual and reproductive health; Sexually transmitted infections; South Africa.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Cities
  • Contraception Behavior
  • Female
  • HIV Infections / epidemiology
  • HIV Infections / etiology*
  • HIV Infections / prevention & control
  • Humans
  • Patient Acceptance of Health Care
  • Prevalence
  • Public Health
  • Reproduction
  • Reproductive Health Services
  • Reproductive Health*
  • Risk Factors
  • Sex Work*
  • Sex Workers*
  • Sexual Behavior*
  • Sexual Health*
  • Sexually Transmitted Diseases / epidemiology
  • Sexually Transmitted Diseases / etiology
  • Sexually Transmitted Diseases / prevention & control
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • South Africa
  • Urban Population
  • Young Adult