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."
Adeola Austin Oyinlade, executive director of Know Your Constitution Initiative, which aims to expand citizens' rights in Nigeria, says the country's constitution includes nothing about sex work.
"The Nigerian Constitution does not expressly mention sex work," Oyinlade says. "The principle of law . . . 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 Oyinlade says that because the constitution is a relatively small document, other laws--such as the Nigerian Criminal Code, which has a section criminalizing sex work--hold sway.
"The offender can be either male or female who is aiding and abetting prostitution," he says. "The criminal code provides two-year imprisonment for those wholly or partly living on proceeds of prostitution."
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.
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 . . . want to do that kind of job."
But in the months since the march, sex workers have continued to demand decriminalization and the recognition of their legal rights. Nongovernmental organizations have been promoting various rehabilitation and education initiatives, though prohibitively high costs have led some advocates to argue instead for decriminalization.
The Ministry of Women Affairs and Poverty Alleviation hosted an event to celebrate the Day of the African Child last month. During the occasion, Risikat Akiyode, permanent secretary for the ministry, said the government was working to rehabilitate underage prostitutes.
"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.
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Jennifer Ehidiamen reports for Global Press Institute's Nigeria News Desk. Her focus is on development journalism.