PEP is a NGO Public Emlightment Program body
Story Adapted and rewritten from Sunnews online by Cosy Eko and Akin Osunlaja
Prostitution as family business
We have an interesting situation in a place called Amansea where it is family-based business; where you see a man, his wife and children. The husband is the pimp that collects the money and the customer goes in to sleep with the wife or daughters.
We have some of the situations there, in Amansea where they have daughters, 14, 15 years old who ought to be in school, but they engage in sex work. Now, apart from the Amansea situation, to also explain the reality that all of the girls don’t know about sexuality, how to protect themselves, you see some of them getting pregnant, you see some with pregnancy and when they give birth, they keep the children there with them.
So, you can imagine such children, we have another programme for such children. We call them orphans and vulnerable children, so for such children, we are looking for resources to get them out of those environments and put them in school. You can imagine a child watching, growing in such an environment, what kind of adult will that child be tomorrow in the society? So, if government is talking about holistic development in all its ramifications, then we need to target this segment of the society which nobody is talking about. You hear people talking about people with disabilities, widows, orphans, but what about commercial sex workers? So, we need to engage with them, engage with the brothel owners themselves who also can have other sources of income because it is their own source of livelihood and they will not be very happy to lose it.
Worried by the waste promising young girls have become by engaging in commercial sex work due to lack of jobs and financial bankruptcy, a non-governmental organization (NGO), Public Enlightenment Projects (PEP-Nigeria) has called on governments to put commercial sex workers in their development programmes.
PEP which is presently working in some local governments in Anambra State said over 73 of such sex workers spread across five council areas in the state have indicated interest to quit the job if they are offered alternative jobs to do.
Executive Director of PEP, Mrs. Lilian Ezenwa who spoke to Daily Sun in an interview explained that the intervention job her organisation has been doing for sex workers has revealed that they really need help.
One of such revelations was their stumbling into a family where the father of the house was the pimp that collects money from customers before they go in to sleep with his wife or daughters.
She also gave details of the intervention they were able to carry out and areas where they need help from the government and individuals.
Public Enlightenment Projects (PEP) is a non-governmental organisation founded in 1998, but we started working in 2000. We work in areas of HIV/AIDS education, children programme and participation and governance. Our head office is in Owerri, while we have our field office here in Awka. We also have zonal offices in the South-South and North West geo-political zones.
Activities in Anambra
In Anambra, we have been implementing a project called the AIDS Impact Mitigation Project (AIMP). This is a HIV intervention project that focuses directly on commercial sex workers.
What we do is that we go to brothels, we pay advocacy visit to the brothel owners or their managers and the chairladies of the girls themselves. We explain to them about this project on HIV and how we want to be of assistance to them, give them correct information about HIV, how it can be contracted, how they can prevent themselves from contracting it and if any of them is positive, what next to do; that is not the end of life because there are other intervention programmes from which people can get anti-retroviral drugs.
Now in Anambra State, we’ve been working in six brothels across some local governments and we have quite some interesting findings. One of it is that most of these girls got to the brothels on a short time measure; either they had pressures, lack of resources, and poverty. Challenges of paying for school fees, continuing education or setting up a trade after learning and somehow, maybe somebody lured them or somebody informed them that oh, come and take up this trade, you will make quick money, good money easily and fast.
But interestingly, from our findings, because we conducted several business surveys with the girls, we asked them questions; how did you get here, everybody tells you their individual stories. From the analysis of the findings we discovered that although it may be easy to move into a brothel, it is not easy to move out.
The brothel system is designed in such a way that when you move in, you don’t move out or you find it difficult to move out.
For example, these girls pay their rents on a daily basis; therefore, everyday your first thought is how to raise your rent for the day. And often, most of them are not allowed to cook, they have to buy food from the restaurant in the hotel, they have to put money together for their drugs, they have to put money together for ancillary services, like settling law enforcement agents from harassing them and things like that.
So, you find out that on a daily basis, before they have to make their own money, they must have saved enough to meet these basic services that they get. We also discovered that most of these are young girls in the ages of 18 to 20, 24. Some of them you know came to Awka because they want to go to school, they found out that they don’t get admission somebody promised them. As a half way measure, they tell their parents they are in school, but they are here.
Also, we discovered that if you claim that you are a student and you engage in commercial sex work it increases your economic value. People tend to respect you more, customers have this funny feeling that oh, undergraduates don’t carry HIV or sexually transmitted infections, that they are safe, whereas it’s not the truth
Another interesting finding we had from the field was also the fact that these girls also have dreams and aspirations like most of us. Many of them also want to marry; many of them also want to raise children, good children. If you ask them do they want their children to engage in this work, all of them will say no, they all want better life and a lot of them showed the zeal that if they are assisted, they will leave the trade.
Then another challenge we had was the challenge of information about HIV. Although HIV has been here for a long time and a lot of people know about HIV, we discovered that these girls don’t have the correct information about HIV. Many of them could not differentiate between HIV and AIDS. Many of them cannot even interpret what HIV really is and what AIDS really is, they’ll tell you, oh, they’ve been hearing about it. And you find out that some of their clients go to them, believing that oh, these are professional sex workers, they know about all these issues, they protect themselves very well; whereas in the field, you find out that it is not so.
We also discovered, I think I have said that before that many of them want to leave this trade because it is a very tasking profession, health-wise, emotional-wise, they get abused by the pimps, they get abused by their customers, sometimes, they are raided by the police and their monies are taken away, so it is a dangerous work.
We also asked them a particular question, is there anybody you know who has been in this trade
, who went out and has not returned. Quite a lot of them said yes, because they know they also face the risk of even kidnappers or ritual murderers, especially as elections are around the corner. These are girls that if they miss nobody will ask questions, parents don’t know where they are, brothers don’t know where they are, so it is a very risky profession; it’s not the kind of profession that any state that claims to have good plans for its citizens should allow thriving.
Assistance for sex workers
In spite of this, we find out that the short term measures that some of our governments take is not the best, for example, demolition of brothels. Sometimes, you hear that oh, you go to your center where you normally work, the girls have been chased away, the brothel has been demolished, but that doesn’t solve the problem because the girls just go underground and relocate to other brothels.
The answer is not in demolishing of brothels, the answer is in discussing with these girls as human beings who have human rights just as we are doing. Finding out their stories, each of them has a compelling story because they are not the only one that has problems, but how do they get there? And what can be done to get them out if they are interested in moving out.
So, these are the issues that we are raising and we wanted to support 20 per cent of them with equipment grant. Right now, we have 97 per cent signifying interest to leave the sex trade, which means, our equipment grant could not go round. That’s one reason we want to raise additional resources, we want to create awareness about this group. The government has been focusing a lot about women, widows, they are not the only ones who have challenges, these are young girls, they are able-bodied young girls, but because many of them are not well educated, they can’t get good jobs.
Because of also the stigma the society has on them, they can’t come out and tell you to help them. Even for us to work with them, it takes a lot of time for them to build trust on us because initially, they will give you fake names, fake phone numbers because they too are investigating you to know whether we are law enforcement agents, whether we want to arrest them. So, it takes time to build trust between the organization and them and now that we know them and they know us and we know their issues, we are calling on government and other public spirited individuals to come and assist.
The girls we saw
They are not bad girls, most of them didn’t set out to become bad girls, many of them are not enjoying what they are doing. For those who understand Igbo, there is a particular brothel we went to, the second day we got there, one of the girls rushed out of her room, I think she wasn’t around the first time we were there, the second time we were there, she just ran out of her room while we were interviewing others, we were having a focus discussion, she just started shouting, I want to repeat her cry in Igbo,
Desperate CRY FOR HELP
“ashawo awuhu oru, onye ga enyere m aka, nyerenu m aka na ashawo awuhu oru” meaning prostitution is no job, anybody that wants to help me should come and help me.
You can imagine, she was saying this and she was weeping.
All of us stopped, that is one thing that is pushing me on in looking for resources for these girls. Today, that girl is one of our peer educators because in each brothel, we raise peer educators, we train them on HIV, and we train them on essential life skills.
Essential life skills are things that everybody knows, you don’t need to be a commercial sex worker to know them. Skills like negotiation, communication, self-esteem, because a lot of them, it’s low self-esteem that got them there, conflict management. Today, that lady is one of our peer educators, educating her colleagues about correct and consistent condom use and about the need to migrate from the sex trade to other trades.
Each time we go to them, we train them every week on different topics around HIV, reproductive health, what is HIV and how you can get it. Condom use, how to put on the condom, why people shouldn’t use condom more than once, they tell you different stories that some of their customers use condom twice, some lubricate condoms with groundnut oil. You may shake your head, but I am telling you real issues and then the condom will burst; the risk on the man if the man is positive. It may not just be HIV, what if he has sexually transmitted infections, or what if the girl has any of the infections, pain relief drugs because of the nature of their job.
Now for those of them who want to migrate from the sex trade, we plan to give 20 per cent of them equipment grant. Because when we were designing the project, of course, we didn’t know how they will receive us, so in our plan, we have 20 per cent to get equipment grant. The equipment grants are not more than N50, 000 each; which means if somebody say she wants to do hair dressing that can get her one dryer and maybe one small generator, the one they call “I pass my neighbour.”
There are a lot of them, but we are not working everywhere, in the areas where we are working is what I can talk about; we don’t have the resources to go to all the brothels in the state. We are working in six brothels in five local governments and in these brothels, we have over 800 people.
The girls who want to quit
We have 73 girls in this state who have signified interest to leave the sex work as soon as they can have alternative sources of income and we don’t have enough resources to go round these 73, so, we are calling on the government, we are calling on public spirited individuals, corporate organizations, religious bodies to come and join hands with us, let’s assist these girls and reintegrate them back into the larger society.