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Estimates of the number of female sex workers in different regions of the world
  1. J Vandepitte1,
  2. R Lyerla2,
  3. G Dallabetta3,
  4. F Crabbé1,
  5. M Alary4,
  6. A Buvé1
  1. 1STD/HIV Research and Intervention Unit, Institute of Tropical Medicine, Antwerp, Belgium
  2. 2Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, Geneva, Switzerland
  3. 3Indian AIDS Initiative of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, New Delhi, India
  4. 4Population Health Research Unit, Centre Hospitalier affilié universitaire and Laval University, Québec City, Canada
  1. Correspondence to:
 Dr J Vandepitte
 STD/HIV Research and Intervention Unit, Institute of Tropical Medicine, Nationalestraat 155, 2000 Antwerp, Belgium; jvdpitte{at}


Objectives: To collect estimated numbers of female sex workers (FSW) and present proportions of FSW in the female population (FSW prevalence) in different regions of the world.

Methods: Subnational and national estimated numbers of FSW reported in published and unpublished literature, as well as from field investigators involved in research or interventions targeted at FSW, were collected. The proportion of FSW in the adult female population was calculated. Subnational estimates were extrapolated to national estimates if appropriate. Population surveys were scanned for proportions of adult women having sex in exchange for money or goods.

Results: In sub-Saharan Africa, the FSW prevalence in the capitals ranged between 0.7% and 4.3% and in other urban areas between 0.4% and 4.3%. Population surveys from this same region yielded even higher proportions of women involved in transactional sex. The national FSW prevalence in Asia ranged between 0.2% and 2.6%; in the ex-Russian Federation between 0.1% and 1.5%; in East Europe between 0.4% and 1.4%; in West Europe between 0.1% and 1.4%; and in Latin America between 0.2% and 7.4%. Estimates from rural areas were only available from one country.

Conclusions: Although it is well known and accepted that FSW are a highly vulnerable group in the scope of the HIV epidemic, most countries in the world do not know the size of this population group. The estimates of the prevalence of FSW presented in this paper show how important this hard-to-reach population group is in all parts of the world.

  • DHS, Demographic and Health Survey
  • EUROPAP, European Network for HIV-STD Prevention in Prostitution
  • FHI, Family Health International
  • FSW, female sex workers
  • UNAIDS, Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS
  • UNDP, United Nations Development Programme
  • WHO, World Health Organization
  • female sex workers
  • population size
  • vulnerable populations
  • HIV surveillance

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  • Edited by Peter Ghys, Neff Walker, Helen Ward and Rob Miller