Sex workers in Nigeria have long called for decriminalisation of prostitution and in 2011, government officials issued a formal response that would set the process in motion. The then Deputy President of the Senate, Ike Ekweremadu made proposals for legalisation of prostitution, but was soon pressured to retract his comments.
Six years on, the succeeding government is addressing the decriminalisation question once again, as it looks to sex workers to help implement its latest HIV prevention programme, which has been marred by slow progress.
Representing the House Committee on HIV/AIDS, David Ombugadu requested proposals from the Nigerian Sex Workers Association to the National Assembly with scope of legalising prostitution in Nigeria. While activists have emphasised their demand for decriminalisation, not legalisation, the latest announcement is a welcome development.
The move came months after activist Amaka Enemo put forward a salient call for decriminalising sex work, highlighting its importance in the fight against HIV. Although sex workers are one of the groups most affected by HIV, they are also one of the groups most likely to respond well to HIV prevention programmes.
If the legalisation model is implemented, it would place Nigeria among other African nations where sex work is legalised, such as Senegal, Namibia, Mali, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ivory Coast, Mozambique and Zambia.
The legal framework for prostitution in Nigeria mirrors that of Britain, where sex work is neither legal or illegal but soliciting, brothel keeping and coercion are criminal offences. Consequently, a sex worker operating independently is not criminalised under the Nigerian constitution but since few sex workers would risk lone work, full decriminalisation is key to their liberation.
The ambiguity of the law creates a contradictory context whereby Nigerian female sex workers who represent one of the most marginalised groups are able to organise, mobilise, and operate within the stony law system – enabling sex workers to, in some cases, enjoy more freedoms than ordinary women and girls outside the industry.
In 2015, the age of consent in Nigeria was lowered to 11 – with the amendment drawing little outrage, as child marriage had been practised legally in Nigeria’s Sharia compliant states since 1999. Broadly, access to reproductive rights remain remarkably low, with application of the most stringent conditions to abortion, making it illegal and unavailable to most women. FGM was made illegal in Nigeria in 2015, but for young women at risk, the impact of this prohibition in the law has yet to be seen.
Yet, sex workers are transgressing this system regularly by employing their own agency and autonomy in Nigeria - a place of incredible contradiction. Although one of the most homophobic nations in the world, online searches for gay porn are exceedingly high. It is also one of the most religious nations in the world, but corruption remains a persistent phenomenon.
Nigeria is home to a vastly undermined demographic in who transgress most of these conditions despite living on the fringes. The unionised Nigerian female sex worker is equipped with knowledge and access to support networks. She is informed and educated about risk, STI check-ups and treatment, contraception and safe abortion clinics. If she encounters sexual assault, because of her access to people of influence, she can have action taken against the perpetrator. Whereas if an ordinary girl – such as a housemaid is sexually assaulted by her employer, reporting the crime and facilitating an investigation, arrest, and prosecution would be unfathomable.
That sex workers can enjoy more freedoms than their civvie counterparts seems plausible in the Nigerian context. The influence they hold was brought to bear in 2015, when more than 2,000 sex workers in Anambra State threatened to go on a four-day strike following harassment and raids by off-duty policemen. Their call for strike action was a reminder to lawmakers of their contribution to public service – serving an almost exclusive client base of government officials. The spokeswoman for the Nigerian Union of Sex Workers leading the protest alluded to the volatile power dynamic between both parties - “[Do] they want me to expose them?” was Patoo Abraham’s rhetorical question. Shortly afterwards, the strike was called off.
The anticipated decriminalisation bill will inevitably be met with self-righteous indignation, but perhaps Nigeria has its sex workers to thank for much more than it would be willing to admit.
Today is the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. In the UK, sex workers and their allies led by the English Collection of Prostitutes (ECP) and the Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement (SWARM) will gather outside the Houses of Parliament on 18th December 2018 for a day of action for sex workers’ rights.