LAGOS, NIGERIA – Patricia Okana, who is in her early 30s, is a commercial sex worker.
“It is just like every other thing you do,” she says. “There are challenges, but I thank God it puts food on my table.”
Okana, a widow, says that poverty is the main catalyst driving women into commercial sex work here. After her husband died, she struggled to support herself. Frustrated, she eventually listened to a friend’s advice to try sex work.
“Everything that tastes bitter must first be sweet, and everything that must be sweet must first be bitter,” she says.
She says that although it pays the bills, she doesn’t encourage young girls to view commercial sex work as their first option.
“I don’t encourage young girls, especially underage,” she says.
Commercial sex workers in Nigeria are demanding more respect and more rights. Nongovernmental organizations, NGOs, have been promoting various rehabilitation and education initiatives. But prohibative costs for these programs lead some advocates to believe that the best option is to decriminalize commercial sex work. The Nigerian Criminal Code penalizes prostitution with imprisonment, but some say the law shouldn’t govern morality. The government has mentioned no plans to decriminalize sex work and instead promotes education and alternative employment.
Nearly 65 percent of Nigerians live below the international poverty line of $1.25 USD a day, according to UNICEF’s latest statistics. Some say this makes sex work an appealing option to earn a living. Official statistics on the number of sex workers in Nigeria are unavailable.
Earlier this year, 50 commercial sex workers marched around Falomo, a popular district on Lagos Island in southwestern Nigeria. The purpose of the peaceful march was to call Nigerians’ attention to the need to respect the rights of sex workers. While some passersby watched in disdain, sex workers rallied in the streets as police officers patrolled the area to ensure safety.
One of the key organizers of the march was Margaret Onah, executive director of Safe Haven International, a Nigerian NGO that advocates for vulnerable girls and women and especially commercial sex workers, and Nigerian coordinator of African Sex Worker Alliance, ASWA, a regional project to end human rights violations against sex workers. The march marked International Sex Worker Rights Day, celebrated annually since 2001.
“It is a global thing,” Onah says. “It was inaugurated in India, where about 25,000 sex workers gathered together to celebrate sex work. Other countries have been doing it.”
Onah says that the public often tramples on sex workers’ rights, making it difficult for them to be open about or proud of what they do.
“There is no sex worker in Nigeria that can boast and say, ‘I am a sex worker,’” she says. “Parents or family members will not want to hear that.”
In the months since the march, sex workers have continued to advocate for the government to introduce policies that create an environment in which they can thrive in their business. Demands include the decriminalization of sex work and the recognition of legal rights for sex workers.
Biola Adepoju, who is in her late 40s, has been a sex worker for more than a decade. She also volunteers with ASWA as a peer educator and researcher on decriminalizing sex work. She collates data about sex workers in Nigeria, since accurate and accessible information about sex work is lacking here.
She says sex workers in Nigeria are treated poorly and deserve better.
“I feel Nigerians should know, appreciate and give space,” she says.
To help do this, Onah says she aims to empower the women in different project areas. One such project is the Sex Workers’ Creative Space, an event organized by Safe Haven that enables sex workers to show their other talents, such as dancing or creating art.
“In creative spaces, we allow sex workers to showcase their [artistic] talents,” Onah says.
Other NGOs focus on health initiatives. For example, Journalists Against AIDS Nigeria has been involved in trainings to educate sex workers about HIV/AIDS. ASWA representatives sit on national HIV councils in Kenya, South Africa and Mozambique, and the project aims to expand this to other African countries, including Nigeria, wrote Kyomya Macklean, ASWA regional coordinator, in an e-mail.
But these initiatives face various challenges. Onah says that out of the 20 sex workers who have participated in her Safe Haven projects so far, only four of them have stayed committed to building their skills in order to find another source of livelihood. The rest stayed in sex work.
The willingness of the commercial sex workers to rehabilitate themselves is sometimes the challenge. But Adepoju says that the commercial sex workers are not to be blamed, attributing their return to sex work rather to a lack of NGO funding for long-term assistance.
“Some NGOs say they don’t have the funds,” Adepoju says. “It [is] rare to find NGOs helping commercial sex workers become established after the training.”
Because of these financial challenges, advocates say that pushing for the decriminalization of commercial sex work seems more sustainable to them. But they say they face a lot of opposition from Nigerian society, which is heavily conservative and religious.
Umeh Chinyere, a civil servant residing in Lagos, says that, like many conservative Nigerians, she doesn’t think decriminalizing sex work is the solution.
“How can the government legalize prostitution?” she asks. “It is not necessary. If it is possible for the government to find jobs for them, that is the main thing because not all of them that are there want to do that kind of job.”
But the women sex workers say they need a voice to speak up for their rights in Nigeria. They say discrimination against them has prevented many sex workers from openly disclosing their identities or accessing medical treatment.
“We need the government to implement laws that will protect commercial sex workers,” Okana says.
Okana says another challenge sex workers face is harassment by police.
“[Policemen] abuse sex workers a lot,” she says. “They treat us like animals. We are all Nigerians, and we have the same rights.”
But a police officer at the Area G Police Command in Ogba, a popular community in Ikeja, the capital of Lagos state, says that when the police get information about a prostitution brothel, they arrest and try to rehabilitate them. The officer says that anyone who refuses to comply will be charged in court with prostitution. The officer says that commercial sex work is a euphemism for prostitution, which is considered illegal in Nigeria.
“The Nigerian Constitution does not permit prostitution,” the officer says. “The sales of pornography films, posters, etc. are prohibited, too.”
Adeola Austin Oyinlade, executive director of Know Your Constitution Initiative, which aims to expand citizens’ rights in Nigeria, says the constitution here doesn’t address sex work.
“The Nigerian Constitution does not expressly mention sex work,” Oyinlade says. “The principle of law under Section 36 (12) of [the] 1999 constitution and decision in Aoko v. Fagbemi is that an unwritten crime is no crime. That is, for any offense to amount as a crime, it must not only be written, but also validly passed by the legislature.”
But he says that because the constitution is a relatively small document, other laws derive their existence from it, such as the Nigerian Criminal Code, which does address sex work.
“Section 225A of the criminal code criminalizes sex work, most especially persons trading in prostitution,” he says. “The offender can be either male or female who is aiding and abetting prostitution. [The] criminal code provides two-year imprisonment for those wholly or partly living on proceeds of prostitution.”
But he says that some say that prostitution falls outside of the government’s jurisdiction.
“Some have argued that prostitution is a morally wrong conduct, which should not be the business of the law,” he says.
The Ministry of Women Affairs and Poverty Alleviation hosted an event to celebrate the Day of the African Child last month. Risikat Akiyode, permanent secretary for the ministry, said during the celebration that the government was working to rehabilitate girls who were prostitutes.
“We are doing a lot of program[s] for them,” she said.
She said that the ministry was working with UNICEF to implement different projects to address the plight of girls engaging in the commercial sex trade.
“Those of them that want to go back to school have access to free education,” she said. “But those of them that are not good academically, we have a lot of skill centers. We have about 15 skill centers where they can go and learn [a] trade, so they don’t go back to the street. The schools are available and they are tuition-free.”
She did not mention any plans by the government to decriminalize sex work.