There are around 176,400 female sex workers in Nigeria and despite their presence in most cities, these women face marginalisation because of the nature of their work. This has often resulted in gross human rights abuses, as we saw with the unwarranted arrest and molestation of women in Abuja, and in some cases death, as was witnessed in Port Harcourt in 2019.
Even though sex workers are often treated as second-class citizens, commercial sex work is still seen as a viable means of income for many women across Nigeria and indeed the world.
Regulating Sex Work
Although the Nigerian Constitution does not criminalise sex work, the prevailing attitude towards sex workers in the country is reflective of what Gail Pheterson describes as the whore stigma, a societal belief that a woman's social worth and rights as a citizen are based on her ability to distance herself from the identity of a "whore".
In Nigeria, sex workers are victims of this stigma through both physical and verbal abuse at the hands of regular citizens and those in law enforcement. A common example of this is the fact that women are often called "Ashewo"— the Yoruba word for a woman who has sex for money—as a derogatory term.
However, there are countries that look at sex workers in a different way: they consider them to be workers. Germany has one of the largest and most sophisticated sex work industries in the world, estimated at roughly €14.5 billion—equivalent to a third of Nigeria's Oil & Gas industry—and employing between 200,000 and 500,000 people. Sex work in Germany is well regulated and the sector has rules that protect the rights of sex workers and ensures they have access to health, unemployment, and pension programs.
The logic behind the German approach is that regulating the sector makes it easier to preserve the rights and safety of sex workers. Evidence backs this up: an international team of researchers found that sex workers in countries where selling or buying sex is illegal are more likely to face violence, not use condoms, and contract HIV. To avoid being arrested, sex workers have to rush the client screening process. The fear of police also means that sex workers are pushed into more isolated areas, leaving them more vulnerable to violence.
Other countries have taken different approaches. For those that opt not to ban sex work, the goal is to find the right balance between preserving perceived women's rights and protecting them from abuse. Places like Canada have tried to tackle this by making it illegal to buy services from sex workers but allowing the sale of it to be legal. This targets customers and pimps, but not the sex workers themselves, thus challenging the belief that men can pay to access women’s bodies while still allowing women the right to choose.
A Nigerian Possibility?
There is an argument that all sex work is exploitative and a form of violence against women and hence it shouldn't be regulated but banned. Again the balance is tricky because there are women who engage in sex work of their own volition and we have seen that in countries where there's regulation, violence can be reduced.
A country's position on the conservatism spectrum usually determines its laws on sex work. Religion plays a major role in the life of the average Nigerian and many would likely cite it as a reason why commercial sex work should not be formalised and regulated. And even though Nigeria is a secular state, religion and religious sentiments are a crucial part of governance and politics and it is highly unlikely that any administration in power would push for regulation.
In 2011, the then Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu, called for the legalisation of prostitution, proper education, sanitisation and awareness, and formal registration in the sector to reduce the level of human trafficking in the country. Nothing has been heard since.
Another challenge with Nigeria formalising sex work is the state of our infrastructure. The health and security industries would need to be highly efficient to support the sex work industry. The health sector would need to effectively manage health hazards—for instance, the high incidence of HIV—that may arise from sex work and also provide regular health checks for sex workers. Nigerian HIV prevalence among sex workers is estimated to be as high as 30%. The health sector would need enough infrastructure, including workers, to deal with current HIV rates and work with educators to reduce it in the future.
Secondly, the security sector would have to formalise its operations to capture traffickers while ensuring that sex workers are engaged in the sector of their own volition, as well as protect them from being exploited.
Essentially, Nigeria has certain sociopolitical, religious, and infrastructural limitations that make it difficult for the country to adopt a regulation route to deal with the issues in the sex work industry. But something must be done to address both rights and violence in the sector. Otherwise, the fate of Nigerian sex workers, like many minorities, will continue to hang in the balance.
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