A Short Essay on Female Sex Work in Ghana

I have just started graduate studies at @ocaduniversity Strategic Foresight and Innovation Masters Program (MDes). It’s really cool so far - I always loved being a student. I am critical of academia as being necessary part of succeeding in life, but I’m excited to learn tools that will be useful in designing the future I want to live in. I’m going to start publishing my assignments and essays here on my blog because I want to start writing more and sharing the tools I am learning to help people think about different future scenarios. I’m shifting in my thinking of what’s most important to me, and what positive impact I can have on the world. The first short essay is about Female Sex Work in Accra Ghana. Feel free to comment on the journal posts to get a conversation going 🖤


Women and Girls in Accra, Ghana face a myriad of intersecting forms of oppression, including social, economic, classism, and sexism (van der Geugten, van Meijel, den Uyl, & de Vries, 2013; Arhin 2016). The compounding effects of these intersectional forms of oppression, combined with the overall socio-economic state of Ghana as a whole serve to push women and girls to the margins of society. In this stakeholder analysis, I offer a brief overview of the setting of Accra, Ghana, and a short socio-cultural analysis to explain possible driving factors for marginalized women and girls that engage in sex work in order to identify key stakeholders. In this analysis, I focus on the population of women and girls in Accra between the ages of 14 - 34. The goal of this stakeholder analysis is to gather the perspectives of a variety of key players on the socio-economic challenges faced by women and girls involved in sex work in Accra, Ghana. From these perspectives, next step will be to develop key insights into the clear framing of this problem in order to develop a socially conscious and anti-oppressive business model that adequately meets a need discovered in this complex system.

This stakeholder analysis uses peer reviewed journal articles, government and non-governmental organization websites, and press releases on the aforementioned topic as well as the lived experience of the researcher to develop an idea of the key players and factors contributing to the topic for research. The sources referenced look at the internal factors: causes of urban migration in Ghana, attitudes towards pre-marital sex, the role of various stakeholders benefiting from women and girls in sex work. They also look at the external factors: modern globalization, international NGO initiatives, and the implications of global economic structures on women and girls in Accra, Ghana. This study does not delve deeply into the research on legal precedence on prostitution, or the potential exploitation, abuse, mistreatment, human trafficking, forced prostitution and coercion of women and girls involved in sex work. Nor does it look closely at the practices and types of sex work practiced by women and girls in Accra, Ghana. Rather, it looks broadly at the linkages between the history of Ghana in the global economy to the capitalist aspirations of women and girls on the living margins. 


Country Population: 29.6 Million

City of Accra Population: 2.27 Million

Greater Accra Metropolitan Area (GAMA) Population: about 4 million inhabitants, which makes it the 11th largest metro area in Africa.

Major ethnic groups: Akan (47.5%), Dagbani (17%), Ewe (14%), Ga-Adangbe (7%), Gurma (6%), Guan (4%), Gurunsi (2.5%), and Bissa (1%).

Major Religions: Christianity, Islam

(World Population Review, 2018)


Sex work can be objectively viewed as valid form of work - one uses their physical labour in exchange for monetary compensation, just as in many other professions in market economies. However, the negative cultural attitudes towards sex work in Ghanaian society tend to ostracize primarily women and girls who have turned to sex work in order to meet their basic human needs (van der Geugten, van Meijel, den Uyl, & de Vries, 2013). In order for women and girls to meet their basic human needs, sex work becomes an easily accessible, albeit risky, socio-economic opportunity. 

On the global stage, Ghana has positioned itself as a country that aims to support, uplift, and protect the rights of women and girls. The President Nana Akufo-Addo was appointed the Chairperson of the African Union’s Committee on Gender and Development during the 29th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of Heads of State and Government in June 2017 (African Union Commission, 2017). The African Union has also recently launched the Gender and Development Initiative for Africa (also referred to as GADIA) (African Union Commission, 2017). In addition, gender equality has been placed on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, signalling to countries (as well as international non-governmental organizations) the importance of funding programs which advance this goal. It is clear that there is a burgeoning political will to address gender equality in Ghana, however the most marginalized women and girls in Ghana still face challenges in achieving their most basic human needs.

This rests on the historical background of the centuries old impacts of capitalism and the immense challenges that neoliberalism has made for countries in the global south like Ghana. According to Alison Symington, Shareen Gokal and Tania Principe in their article Achieving Women’s Economic & Social Rights Strategies and Lessons from Experience, it is stated that “Trade liberalization and structural adjustment policies have promoted a development model that focuses on economic growth and consumption, rather than on human development and expanding freedoms.” (Symington, Gokal, & Principe, 2006). Focus on economic growth has resulted in the development of the city of Accra into a major African metropolitan, with rural to urban migration as a key driving factor for population growth (Mittelmark & Wilson, 2013). However, the need for economic opportunities in cities does not always meet the demands. Symington, Gokal and Principe go on to state that “Trends in terms of labour migration, influenced by rapidly changing economic opportunities, have been implicated in new forms of exploitation and risk to women.” (Symington, Gokal, & Principe, 2006). Women and girls who migrate from rural areas to Accra are often faced with limited economic opportunities and therefore engage in informal high-risk economic activities.

The transformative power of modern globalization has created a change in societies worldwide, especially in millennial populations, ushering in new ways of being and relating to each other. With regards to pre-marital sex in Ghana, young peoples attitudes have been shifting from abstinence before marriage, to a more free and open approach to dating (van der Geugten, van Meijel, den Uyl, & de Vries, 2013). This is in spite of the strong cultural historical role that Christianity and Islam have played in setting the tone towards women who engage in sex before marriage. Attitudes towards females who engage in pre-marital sex are more harsh than towards males. “There are no specific cultural or religious practices concerning the virginity of men… In contrast, the premarital sexual activities of male youths will not affect their social status.” (van der Geugten, van Meijel, den Uyl, & de Vries, 2013). The Ghanaian government, similarly to other west African governments, also plays subtly into this narrative by promoting abstinence as the most acceptable form of birth control (Kabiru & Ezeh, 2007). 

Pre-martial abstinence is promoted and accepted social norm in Ghana, which stands as cognitive dissonance to the women and girls involved in sex work. Given the higher risk of exposure to sexually transmitted diseases and infections such as HIV/AIDS as a sex worker living on the margins, a sex working woman who has contracted HIV is pushed even further to the margins. “There remains a social stigma to the infection [of HIV] in Ghana. An HIV positive sex worker will not be able to continue living and working in her community.” (Papworth, 2009). Women and girls engaged in sex work in Accra, Ghana must be very keen to prevent against exposure at the risk of becoming even more marginalized. Additionally, while societal attitudes towards sex work are generally negative, the families of women and girls engaged in sex work do benefit from this form of labour. This is why healthcare providers are listed as an important stakeholder in this analysis; they offer a service which protects the health of women and girls engaged in sex work.

Men (and often boys) play two main roles in this issue. Men and boys are in a market segment referred to in this analysis as service users who pay for transactional sex; and second as non-paying partners (NPPs; otherwise culturally referenced as pimps). Prostitution laws in Ghana are such that women are criminalized for soliciting work (Tenni, Carpenter & Thomson, 2015). Without protection under the law, and being socially, physically and economically more vulnerable than Men, non-paying partners play a key role in the economic structure of sex work in Ghana. In this dynamic, non-paying partners can wield a considerable amount of power in a female sex worker’s life, but “some sex workers in Ghana appreciate their NPPs because they ensure the sex workers are paid. They also provide protection and look out for the police.” (Papworth, 2009). As aforementioned, there is less stigma upon men in Ghana who engage in pre-marital sex than for women. Service users who engage women and girls in sex work do so by offering resources for basic needs in exchange for sexual acts: “there are female youths [in Ghana] who have sex with boys and men in exchange for money; this is defined as ‘transactional sex’. They do so in order to be able to pay for or buy food, shelter, clothing, school fees, school uniforms, mobile phones, trendy dresses and jewellery… Nevertheless, when they [women] want to marry their past can be a barrier.” (van der Geugten, van Meijel, den Uyl, & de Vries, 2013). While sex work is a service in an industry with a clear market, the ramifications for women and girls engaging in transactional sex for basic needs has an affect on not only their health, but their social status, future prospects, and their risk of entering the criminal justice system. Additionally, while societal attitudes towards sex work are generally negative, the families of women and girls engaged in sex work do benefit from this form of labour.

Between 2000 and 2015, the United Nations Millennial Development Goals served as an important political and policy reference point for the assessment of progress of efforts geared towards meeting some of the pressing development challenges confronting Ghana (Arhin, 2016). Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) work closely with the government to achieve the policies and goals set out by the Ghanaian government. As service providers, NGOs mobilize resources to provide goods and services to specific groups of people or communities who need them (Arhin, 2016). Some examples of these goods and services are education resources, health services to marginalized communities, human rights advocacy, micro-finance, policy analysis, and environmental management. However well intentioned, the interventions offered by NGOs place greater emphasis on alleviating surface poverty and achieving program objectives and targets, with little capacity to affect the complex structural, cultural and systemic factors that push women and girls to the margins of society in a sustainable way. In fact, discriminatory cultural practices are among the most entrenched and unyielding of obstacles to women’s equality, particularly in the areas of housing, land and inheritance. This is because race, religion, national origin and ethnicity often work hand-in hand with gender to delineate who enjoys which rights within a given society (Symington, Gokal, & Principe, 2006). 


In this stakeholder analysis, I attempted to outline some of the key players in the socio-economic issue of marginalized women and girls involved in sex work in Accra, Ghana. In the context of a complex social, economic, cultural system that tends to disenfranchise women and girls, this indeed can be defined as a wicked problem. When looking at the messaging from the Ghanaian government in the aforementioned research, it seems that there is political will to address gender inequality in Ghana as a whole. However, an over arching pattern I noticed for each stakeholder group is financial resources to adequately address their needs. As for the underlying systemic challenges, more research needs to be completed to determine whether sex work can be de-stigmatized in order to better protect the rights of women and girls engaged in sex work in Ghana. From a capitalist market generation perspective, if the Ghanaian government and society saw that a market exists for the services that female sex workers offer, a possible solution could be decriminalizing sex work to bring it from the informal to the formal sector in order to tax transactions for financial gain to the government. 

My personal insight into this issue is this: because I am attempting to develop myself as a business design thinker, I tried to frame this big problem in a way so that I can design a solution using a business model. However, I am truly reluctant to design a business answer to this problem. Through my research in this project it is clear that there are historical global factors (ie. structural adjustment policies, neoliberalism) and ideological factors (ie. sexism, patriarchy) that stand out to me as the main problems that drive women and girls to the margins in Accra, Ghana. Developing a business model that would serve the female sex worker that aims for profit for potential shareholders feels to me like using the same capitalist system that got us to this point to develop a solution, when the whole system should be redesigned. 

Finally, this stakeholder analysis has led me to develop a set of questions to frame the next step of the business model development process of problem finding for the purposes of this course:

  • Are there any NGOs for boys and men that are focusing on the ideological challenges in this issue?

  • Although families have been listed as a stakeholder, do different family members have different stake in sex working women’s health?

  • What perspectives do different government groups/sectors have in this issue, and how are different government services affected by the sex work industry?

  • What are the interactions between sex working women and girls peer groups, and are there opportunities for change there?


African Union Commission. (2017, November 13). African Union set to launch the Gender and Development Initiative for Africa. Retrieved September 27, 2018, from https://au.int/en/newsevents/20171113/african-union-set-launch-gender-and-development-initiative-africa

Arhin, A. (2016). Advancing post-2015 sustainable development goals in a changing development landscape: Challenges of NGOs in Ghana. Development in Practice, 26(5), 555-568.

Kabiru, C. W., & Ezeh, A. (2007). Factors associated with sexual abstinence among adolescents in four sub-saharan African countries. African Journal of Reproductive Health / La Revue Africaine De La Santé Reproductive, 11(3), 111-132. doi:10.2307/25549735

Papworth, V. (2009). Screening hits the streets. Nursing Standard (Royal College of Nursing (Great Britain) : 1987), 24(12), 24.

Symington, A., Gokal, S., & Principe, T. (2006). Achieving Women’s Economic & Social Rights: Strategies and Lessons from Experience. Retrieved September 27, 2018, from https://www.awid.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/achieving_womens_economic_social_rights_strategies_and_lessons_from_experience.pdf

Tenni, B., Carpenter, J., & Thomson, N. (2015). Arresting HIV: Fostering partnerships between sex workers and police to reduce HIV risk and promote professionalization within policing institutions: A realist review. PLoS One, 10(10), e0134900. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0134900

Wilson, A., & Mittelmark, M. B. (2013). Resources for adjusting well to work migration: Women from northern Ghana working in head porterage in greater Accra. Africa Today, 59(4), 24-38.

United Nations Organization. (n.d.). Gender equality and women's empowerment. Retrieved September 27, 2018, from https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/gender-equality/

van der Geugten, J., van Meijel, B., den Uyl, M.H.G, & de Vries, N.K. (2013). Virginity, sex, money and desire: Premarital sexual behaviour of youths in Bolgatanga municipality, Ghana. African Journal of Reproductive Health / La Revue Africaine De La Santé Reproductive, 17(4), 93-106.

World Population Review: Ghana Population. (2018, July 17). Retrieved September 27, 2018, from http://worldpopulationreview.com/countries/ghana-population/

Cover Photo by Sierra Nallo, 2018.