Sex workers in Muslim-dominated Senegal await end of Ramadan after month of slow business

DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — Wearing white to symbolize purity, worshippers throughout this African capital gathered to pray on one of the final nights of Ramadan. To purify the soul and purge sin, they hadn't eaten all day and refrained from drinking, smoking and having sex — which during the holy month is only allowed among spouses at night.

Ramadan is bad news for the sex workers on the streets of Senegal, a country where 94 percent of the population is Muslim and prostitution is legal.

"It's a rough month," said 31-year-old Fatou Diop, who had taken a position on a piece of pavement just beyond the flashing lights of a nightclub in downtown Dakar. Her miniskirt was so short it barely reached beyond the top of her thighs.

"There are fewer clients during Ramadan — and we earn less. You can work for three days and not make anything," she said.

Like many prostitutes in Dakar, Diop moved to the capital from the city's poor outskirts. She works to support her family, including her young son.

In the same unlit alleyway, Awa Ndiaye was strutting in a dress as tight as cellophane. She said her clients dwindled from 10 per night to three. The 24-year-old native of Casamance, a region in the south of Senegal, said it's difficult to make enough to live. She normally earns $50 per client, but from that amount she must bribe the local police to keep from being harassed or put in jail.

"I have to support my family on what's left after I pay them," she said. "Now, there's no work."

Even though prostitution is legal, it is still taboo. If the police harass prostitutes — registered or not— and threaten to take them to jail, they often have no recourse but to pay a bribe.

Ndiaye is one of the registered, or legal, sex workers who are required to report to a health clinic for HIV and sexually transmitted disease testing every two weeks or risk losing their health card. Other women work clandestinely.

Djiby Sow coordinates health programs at Africa Consultants International and works with local groups in Dakar that offer health services and counseling to prostitutes.

"The worst impact is during the first two weeks," he said. "People are very pious then. Business goes back up toward the end of the month."

In a dark alley near Dakar's seedy nightspots, a car slowed. Ami Mdaye approached the driver's side window, but the car pulled forward and left her standing in the road.

"We're tired," she said after she returned to the sidewalk. "We do this until five in the morning, but there are still no customers."


Associated Press Writer Sadibou Marone contributed to this report.