Why Nigeria sex workers prefer subtle but aggressive strategy on decriminalisation

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Boxed into a corner by unfair laws, sex workers in Nigeria have invested long hours of subtle diplomacy where they talk to aggressors such as law enforcers instead of protesting in the streets. They believe dialogue is the nerve of their advocacy. The leader of the country’s national movement, Amaka Enemo, explains why

What does the law say on sex work?

It is complicated. In the Northern States, it is prohibited under the Islamic Penal Code, which in some cases is so punitive that it calls for stoning of a woman caught doing sex work.

In the South, which largely operates on the country’s constitution, sex workers are not criminalised. Instead, brothel owners and people that benefits from the proceed of sex work like madams are penalised.

In the real sense everyone is a beneficiary of sex work proceedings. For example, a shopkeeper in a village will not ask me where I got the money if I go to their shop.

Sex workers are often arrested by the State Task force on Environmental and Special Offences for loitering or made up charges.

What is the situation of sex workers in your country?

Currently, sex workers in Nigeria are beginning to speak up unlike before. Our main challenge still remains the law enforcers because they keep violating the sex workers right, and this most times drive them underground and also brings a lot of stigma thereby making sex workers to be emotionally violated.

The calls for decriminalisation are growing louder in many African countries sometimes with street protests to draw attention to gross violations, stigma and discrimination against sex workers. Are sex workers in Nigeria doing the same?

We rarely do street protests; instead we talk to people who aggrieve us. Demonstrations definitely are a strategy, but it works against our course in Nigeria.

We reach out to law enforcers because we realised they are immune to protests and are always prepared for confrontations. We reach out to the bosses and speak to them about the need to protect sex workers because one may never know who clients of sex workers are. We have angels at night and devils in the morning.

I know it is an exhausting exercise, but I have camped in different government offices seeking audience with those in charge. My resilience has often worked because I often get a hearing.

We also use United Nation forums when countries report their progress on human rights to highlight our plight. That way, we get attention.

We also use other progressive platforms such as the media and the Judiciary.

What issues or people inspire you?

I was a sex worker for five years before I became an activist. Then, I experienced first hand the violations against sex workers and the fact that they were excluded in many decisions that affected their lives.

Driven by search for fairness, I started volunteering for an organisation working for sex workers, Renewed Action Against HIV and AIDS and other Sexually transmitted diseases (RENEGAID) in 2012-2013. Then, I interacted with sex workers from many parts of Nigeria, who gave harrowing accounts of abuse and violations of their rights. I felt helpless and wished I could do more for them.

What was your turning point?

ICASA {The International Conference on AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Infections in Africa} 2013 in Cape Town opened my eyes. During the conference, I met other sex workers organised to speak in one voice. This started a burning desire for me to make a difference in Nigeria. Previously, I had gone to India for tour to learn how sex workers there organise.

The tour ignited my passion and the meeting in South Africa lit the fire in me. I could no longer sit and watch, as my community was being violated and denied vital health services.

What are the highlights of your activism?

As recognition of my work, in 2016 I was picked as an AVAC (Global Advocacy for HIV Prevention) fellow in 2016 to ensure PrEP (Pre-exposure prophylaxis, drugs taken by HIV-negative people to prevent infection) is adopted in Nigeria’s health policy framework. My duty was to ensure the treatment was included in the national prevention guidelines.

This task was one of the difficult undertakings in my advocacy work. I went through hell explaining to government officials why Nigeria needed to embrace PrEP. The Ministry of Health dismissed me on many occasions arguing that sex workers would become reckless and stop using other HIV transmission preventive measures like condoms. During this period, I learnt that the importance of having allies and tapping into their skills, networks and influence to get things done. I can proudly report that, after several stalemates, the Nigerian government agreed to adopt PrEP.

Getting the police to let us march during the International Sex Workers’ Rights Day is marked on 3 March in 2014 is also a proud moment. In the previous years, we had been denied a permit.

What drives you?

My motto is to never give up or be shut down. I came to this resolve after I presented a shadow report during the 67th session of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in July 2017 in Geneva. The report focuses on the impact of stigma, violence and discrimination on female sex workers’ ability to access HIV prevention and health services, and their vulnerability to HIV and violence at the hands of police.

I was perhaps the loudest voice from Nigeria that time to discount the government’s claim that the rights of all women, who include sex workers, had improved greatly.

Read the report here: Nigeria Sex Workers Association CEDAW Shadow Report 2017.

I put the Government to task for claiming that all women were protected yet sex workers were being grossly violated. I wrote the report and International Women’s Rights Action Watch, ASIA Pacific funded the trip and helped with the edits. I was given a few minutes to speak, but I made my point. At the end of it all, the Government was called out on its laxity in upholding the Convention.

I count mobilising sex workers in Nigeria to form groups and get registered as a milestone. Nine of them get grants on my recommendation.

I also take credit as part of an advocacy network that ensured PrEP is included in the National HIV Prevention Guideline as a big milestone as well as being part of the Key Populations Network in Nigeria.

What challenges have you faced in your activism?

Religion, culture and law. These three put many hurdles in the way. The other emerging problem is sex trafficking. Our country is a source and transit route of this hideous crime, but we educate people on the difference of sex work and human trafficking.

Funding is a big problem. Our national movement barely attracts any local or even international support. Sex workers are still viewed as the face of HIV and Aids, a fact that heightens stigma, discrimination and violence against them. We would want to change this view, but it is an uphill task.

Give a brief overview of what you do

I am a proud graduate of the Sex Worker Academy Africa (SWAA) graduate. The academy and other events in my life, made me whom I am today; a fearless and vocal advocate of sex worker rights in my country.

I am the National Coordinator of Nigeria Sex Workers Association (NSWA). I am also the Executive Director of Passion and Concern For Women Welfare and Empowerment (PACOWWEI) and the chairperson of National Key Affected Population Network in Nigeria.

Established in 2005 as a Community Based Organisation, PACOWWEI is a community led organisation that works with sex workers, their partners and their children. This approach is informed by the fact that sex workers do not exist in isolation; they are part of a family unit that cannot be overlooked in advocacy.

As the national movement’s coordinator, I am the voice of over 24-registered community based organisations. I represent them in national platforms touching on sex work, share information on existing opportunities and organise capacity building trainings with leaders of organisations. As a requirement, every leader that goes through any training is expected to mentor other members for posterity.

 

 

 

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