By Maarit Sinikangas

My ethnographic research was conducted in one of the poorest slum area in Dar es Salaam, the most populous city in Tanzania, where I collected data in 2012 and 2014. There, rapid growth of the population and urbanization has led to increasing poverty and changes in the culture, religious rules and moral codes, and has supported the growing tendency of girls and women to engage in transactional sex. The term transactional sex refers to an economic exchange in which sex is exchanged for money or commodities. According to Nobelius (2010), transactional sex has been often referred to as prostitution in research literature but a distinction should be made between these two forms of exchange. Yet, there is still no shared view among researchers regarding the difference between sex work and transactional sex (Barnett et al. 2011). Why is transactional sex not the same as prostitution in the context of urban residents in the area I studied?

Women living in the poor neighbourhood, let’s call it Kaya, have few choices to earn a living due to their low level of education. Many women earn their living within the informal economy, selling food, charcoal, or working as house maids for Indian merchant families. Starting a business requires capital which is often provided by the husband or relatives. Without capital or recommendations for a job, there are not many options for a woman. Men have better access to short term jobs (construction and work in the harbour, for example) and they are usually the providers for their families. During my fieldwork, it occurred to me that among the slum dwellers, there are large numbers of single mothers with no livelihoods. Their husbands or boyfriends have left them after discovering they were pregnant, or he had died or simply abandoned his family for other reasons. If this happens, a woman’s options are few; she needs to find a relative, husband or a boyfriend to support her financially. Another option is to become a prostitute, malaya, since it requires only sexual capital. The first choices are socially accepted, whereas prostitution is not only seen as immoral but is also illegal in Tanzania.

Kariakoo market where women of Kaya go to buy supplies for sale. © Maarit Sinikangas.

In Kaya, many of my informants knew somebody who was a malaya, but no one admitted to being one. Both male and female informants told me that for the women in Kaya, prostitution is not a choice but something that has to be done to earn living. Informants seemed to feel sympathy for the malaya but in the same sentence, they criticized the choice as immoral. One local homosexual told me that life is easier for him in Kaya than in many other areas since people are more accepting there. I started to wonder whether a heterogeneous mixture of residents who share in common poverty, leads to tolerance of behaviours that fall outside moral and social norms better than other more homogeneous groups? 

In Kaya, the malaya seem to occupy a certain status for many reasons: they do not have social networks to support them and their way to earn money is illegal. Further, the shadow of HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases is always present and their behaviour is not considered to be in line with religious virtues. When I asked men if they have had sex with a local malaya, they denied it. However, they knew where prostitutes live and work, and how much they charge. I was told that there are several ‘classes’ of prostitutes. It was striking to hear that the poorest women are on the street earning approximately 300 TZS (0.15 €) per client. They have sex in parks, cemeteries or in the clients’ cars. An expensive malaya, on the other hand, works in the night clubs, earning 40 000 TZS (18 €) for a “quickie” and 50-55 000 TZS (22-24 €) for a whole-night client.

In the context of transactional sex, girls and women are not seen as deviants but as agents operating within social norms. To get a boyfriend to support her financially is accepted, since the man’s role as provider is seen as normal and the money given is seen as a token of caring. Women are expected to have sex with the men in return. Even though the money could be seen as income for the woman, the given meaning for the money is not income, but a gift. Money shows appreciation and interest, maybe there is also a continuation in the relationship. This kind of exchange meets the social expectations of a relationships between men and women and is expected also in marriage. Sometimes a woman crosses the moral boundaries with her behaviour: if a woman dates several men at the same time or has sex once just to get money or goods, the community begins to question her morality. Such women are called CD, which is an abbreviation from the word changudoa, originally meaning a fish, but in slang it refers to a young prostitute.

Street view in Kijitonyama area, Dar es Salaam.  © Maarit Sinikangas.

Thus, the difference between prostitution and transactional sex lies in shared social norms and attitudes as well as in the social networks. The malaya’s livelihood is not seen as moral and acceptable, even though the informants understood that the motive for such behaviour was poverty. Prostitutes are considered immoral in society due to their lack of choice concerning livelihood and the illegality of their actions. Transactional sex, however, is seen as normal reciprocity in which the compensation is seen as a token of appreciation, not as a reward or salary. Nobelius (2010) shows in her study on transactional sex in Uganda that the modern exchange in sexual relations has been modelled on traditional institutions such as courting and bride wealth payments, which make the exchange and premarital sex socially acceptable.

Currently, Dar es Salaam is the destination for most immigrants from rural areas in Tanzania: 31 % of rural migrants are moving to Dar. Most of them want to share in Dar’s economic growth. This makes Dar es Salaam a city which is largely composed of migrants. Historically, the number of male migrants has exceeded the number of female migrants, but since 2012 women between 15 and 29 years have become the biggest internal migration group (National Bureau of Statistics 2015). People are driven to cities in the hope of a better income and future, however, they often end up living in large urban slum areas lacking livelihood, running water, electricity, education and/or health care. Considering the great number of young, poor women moving to the city, it can be only guessed how many of them end up in sexual relationships.


  • Barnett, Jessica Penwell; Maticka-Tyndale, Eleanor; The Hp4ry Team (2011). The Gift of Agency: Sexual Exchange Scripts among Nigerian Youth. Journal of Sex Research 48 (4): 349-359.
  • National Bureau of Statistics (2015). Migration and Urbanization Report 2015. Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania.
  • Nobelius, Ann-Maree; Kalina, Bessie; Pool, Robert; Whitworth, Jimmy; Chesters, Janice & Power, Robert (2010). “You Still Need to Give Her a Token of Appreciation”: The Meaning of the Exchange of Money in the Sexual Relationships of Out-of-School Adolescents in Rural Southwest Uganda. Journal of Sex Research 47 (5): 490-503.