By Jennifer Ehidiamen
Tuesday, July 19, 2011
Nigerian sex workers and their allies are pressing for the decriminalization of commercial sex work. While officials talk about educational and job-training initiatives, they are silent on changing the criminal code.
LAGOS, Nigeria (WOMENSENEWS)--Patricia Okana, 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, which is a crime that can be punished by imprisonment here.
Nearly 65 percent of Nigerians live below the international poverty line of $1.25 a day, according to UNICEF's latest statistics. Official statistics on the number of sex workers in Nigeria are unavailable.
After her husband died, Okana 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.
Earlier this year, 50 commercial sex workers marched around Falomo, a popular district on Lagos Island in southwestern Nigeria, calling for respect for their rights.
A key organizer was Margaret Onah, executive director of Safe Haven International, a Nigerian advocacy group for girls and women and especially commercial sex workers, and Nigerian coordinator of African Sex Worker Alliance, a regional project to end human rights violations against sex workers.
The march marked International Sex Worker Rights Day, celebrated annually on March 3 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."
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