Public Opinion, Press Coverage and the Pempho Banda Case: Contesting Sex Work Criminalization in Malawi's Developing Tourism Sector

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Virginia Tech

When police arrested nineteen women in Dedza, Malawi hospitality locations in 2016, it was under the guise of the living on the earnings of prostitution laws. The women appealed and won their case, with the ruling judge noting that Malawian women are free to patronize any hospitality facilities or bars without fear of being arrested. The case, The Republic v. Pempho Banda and 18 Others, sparked a national debate over the social and legal status of sex workers in the southern African country. It also brought to light that efforts to stimulate tourism had inadvertently boosted the country's sex work industry. To move away from a reliance on agriculture and bolster socio-economic growth and its foreign exchange earnings, the country is positioning itself to gain a greater market share of visitors. However, as in many tourist destinations, the promise of sex attracts tourists, and sex is increasingly becoming a central offering of Malawi's tourism industry. Yet, Malawian sex workers continue to occupy a social status in which they are marginalized or mistreated by the general public and criminal justice system. This provides apt conditions for continued and increased human rights abuse against sex workers. This research explores the events, legal environment, media coverage, and public opinion surrounding this case and its relation to the tourism industry. The data is from interviews with actors in the criminal justice system, documents and an analysis of online media about the Pempho Banda et al. case. My dissertation highlights the complexities and contradictions surrounding sex work in Malawi. In doing so, I hope to intervene in the national debate surrounding sex workers so as to facilitate public opinions and policies that are more sex worker friendly and protective of their human rights.

Africa, Sex Tourism, Social Attitudes, Prostitution, Decriminalization, sex trade