How the sex workers’ movement in Nigeria is “growing and showing” despite violence
The Nigerian Criminal Code penalises sex work with imprisonment, while at the same time the government claims to focus on promoting education and alternative employment for sex workers. However, 65 percent of Nigerians live below the international poverty line, revealing a significant lack of employment opportunities. In the meantime, the criminalisation of sex work has resulted in a lack of protection and rights for sex workers in Nigeria who experience regular violence and abuse from police in addition to the widespread fear and violence spread by Boko Haram.
“There are challenges, but I thank God it puts food on my table”
— sex worker in Nigeria (source here)
Courage and positivity
The South African Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) and African Sex Worker Alliance (ASWA) organised an international meeting in 2010 to build sex workers’ knowledge on human rights. The Nigerian participants seized the opportunity to create their own organisation for and by sex workers. The group is now called Ohotu Diamond Women Initiative (formerly known as WOPI). Eva Jansen talked with the group’s coordinator, Imaobong Abraham Udoh, a.k.a Pat Abraham, about the challenges the group faces and how they overcome them.
“Ohotu means love in one of Nigeria’s local languages,” explains Patt Abraham, “It symbolises the group’s mentality of mutual support and positivity.”
Their positive mind-set and courageous approaches are some of the greatest strengths of the women oganised in Ohotu. The organisation informs sex workers about their sexual and reproductive health and human rights. It organises rallies and media campaigns in support of decriminalisation of sex work and supports women sex workers in Lagos city to claim their rights. Their events help to foster solidarity and empower the sex worker communities.
“It is not easy; the road to decriminalisation is very long,” explains Patt Abraham.
From police abuse to police approval
The visibility of the group is significant, particularly considering the criminalised status and stigma surrounding sex work. While facing the risk of being arrested, members of the group march the streets with banners to raise awareness about sex workers’ human rights. Patt explains that the only way to be visible as activists and sex workers is to keep educating the police and invest time into building partnerships.
“Before we take any action, we get in touch with one of the commissaries to discuss our plans. We try to explain to them that sex workers also have morals, and that they have children that need to be raised. We want the next generation to be better off than ours. Officers need to realise that the HIV problem is something that hits the entire country. The HIV prevalence will only go down if sex workers have the possibility to work on this problem.”
The group has been successful at building this relationship as the police commissioner usually allows their planned activities and protects them during protests or gatherings. Still, police abuse remains one of the biggest challenges for sex workers in Nigeria, according to Patt.
”The police goes after the girls… Police officers often go to brothels to collect money. If sex workers refuse, they are arrested or abused, depending on the officers’ mood. The system is corrupt, which makes the situation worse than it already is.”
Ohotu advises sex workers to take photographs whenever something bad happens in brothels or at ‘hotspots’ (common locations where women sex workers solicit or meet clients). They use the photos as proof in their claims with other, less corrupt, police officers when they try to pressure them to take appropriate action.
”Yesterday I visited one of the brothels in Lagos. There had been a fight between a costumer and one of the girls at work, which escalated very badly. The costumer cut the girl in her ear and she ended up in the hospital. The police was there but did not do anything.”
Other problems faced by Ohotu are the violent conflicts and the political tensions in the country. The postponed elections this year and the fundamentalist sect Boko Haram, which abducted almost 200 young women and girls in April last year and continues to create havoc, caused a lot of tension across the country. Many people, including a lot of sex workers, fled to family in safer areas and small villages. Particularly many migrant sex workers in Lagos are from the area where the kidnappings took place and had personal contact with affected families. Patt recalls:
“Around the time of the events, we had to cancel trainings for security and safety concerns and due to absence of members. Boko Haram was moving from the north-east to the south-west of Lagos. This frightened people because it meant they could be everywhere.”
People stayed away from the streets as much as possible, including sex workers and customers. The sex worker rights day activities had to be postponed. As soon as the situation was slightly more peaceful, Ohotu rescheduled its activities. In June, for example, Ohotu organised an event for sex workers, brothel managers and human rights activists. There was information about sex work and family planning, and sex workers learned new skills such as making clothes and baking cakes.
“The new learned skills can be used to make some extra money,” explains Patt. “For many sex workers it is not easy to combine sex work and raising children. By having other sources of income, for example selling self made jewellery, sex workers do not have to rely on sex work completely. They can work from home a bit more, and find a better balance between work and family.”
It is not an attempt to ‘rescue’ sex workers from their job, but rather provide opportunities to improve their livelihood situation
Expanding its work
Ohotu is ambitious and full of plans. While decriminalisation is the goal, it also works to increase sex workers’ access to health services and HIV prevention. In addition, Ohotu wants to expand its work with children of sex workers:
”They are very vulnerable,’ says Patt. ”They need education and more respect, it is good to bring them together. They are often being bullied by other kids, because of their mothers’ stigmatised job. If we want to help sex workers, we need to help their children too, they are the future.”
Undeterred by the challenging circumstances in the country, the sex workers’ rights movement in Nigeria is growing and increasingly visible because, as Patt says, ”We are tired of dying in silence”.
By Eva Jansen for the Red Umbrella Fund