Introduction: Sex work is increasingly becoming a feasible option for people to survive and/or participate in urban life in Vanuatu. Research into sex work in Vanuatu’s capital, Port Vila, has revealed the informal nature of sex work, and the key role peer networks play young people’s initial engagement with sex work. Research has also revealed various vulnerabilities sex workers face regarding their health and wellbeing.
Method: Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 24 participants who were mostly sex workers. These interviews were undertaken by the author over several months in mid-2016 in Luganville, on the northern island of Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu.
Findings: Two key reasons people began engaging in sex work was due to financial need, or as a way to participate in the social life of the town. Clients tended to determine how much was given in exchange for sex, what kind of sexual activity occurred, and where it was performed. This research also found an extensive network of (primarily) men involved as facilitators of sex transactions. Overall, the sex workers were severely limited in the decisions they could make regarding their reproductive and sexual health. Harassment, sexual and physical violence at the hands of clients and other community members were also widespread experiences amongst sex workers.
Conclusions: The power and control of clients during sexual transactions significantly limited the ability of sex workers to make decisions concerning their sexual, reproductive health and wellbeing resulting in their suffering extreme and life-changing abuse. Sex workers need access to free, non-judgmental sexual and reproductive health services, and, more broadly, a widespread acknowledgement of their rights as full and complex human beings.
Key words: sex work, sexual/reproductive health, Vanuatu