In my line of work, I come across all sorts and as a writer and researcher with an interesrt in gender issues, I keep loving my job as the days go by.I find field work most exciting, as here I am out there talking one on one, eye ball to eye ball,sometimes touching and also feeling with people who are my greatest interest.Commercial sex is an area of work I find interesting and my curiousity thirts for knowledge about the motivating factors and how these women got into this line of work , known to Nigerians as "Ashawo work". Have these women chosen this line of work because they are bad people, simply immoral or is it "what I strongly beleive" a means to an end?
I set out with a colleague,Bukky early in the morning for our destination and the first thing that struck me as an individual was that when we got to the area (I have chosen not to mention the location) and started asking for the brothel by its name (i.e. the name boldly written on its fence) no one seemed to know the place. Then Bukky asked a few other people if they knew where we could find the brothel where "ashawos" , hang out. As soon as she said this, most of the young men we asked seemed to now know and give us precise directions!
A gutter runs past the entrance of the brothel and on entering the compound, you see young ladies going about their chores like every young normal lady. Some are washing, some cooking while others are on their way to the market. My companion informs the manager about our mission before we start talking to the girls who are at first very skeptical as they are not sure of our mission. I made it clear to them that I was not there to judge them but hear their story. In the end only five of the girls were willing to speak to us.
Bukky informed the manager about our mission before we start talking to the girls who are at first very skeptical as they are not sure of my mission. As Bukky is a familiar face, I had to make it clear to them that I was not there to judge them but hear their story. In the end five of the girls gave their consent and were willing to have a chat with us .
Sandra hummed a gospel tune as she invited us into her small cubicle. It contained a small bed, a TV with two bibles carefully placed on it. I sat on the bed while Bukky stood in the only available space which was by the door. Sandra is from the South and was brought to Lagos by a friend 2 years ago promising to get her a job in a restaurant but ended up introducing her to sex work. Poor conditions pushed her into selling sex for money which has paid her way through a fashion designing program which she hopes to take up as soon as she can save up enough money to rent her own shop and buy a sewing machine. When asked if she saw sex work as a long term profession, she explained that it was something she was doing to make ends meet after which she would stop because she saw it as a dirty job she hates. She does not attach any emotions to her job which according the her was one of the reasons she has refused to have a boyfriend as there is no possibility of falling in love with any of her clients. She was just there to make money. Her low points of the job was the little money paid for her service by some clients after bargaining against her initial price and some aggressive clients who fought her. In such situations, the manager usually called the police and had these men arrested She had no choice but to tolerate and accept the fact that not all clients will be well behaved as it wasn’t an industry she was not forced into and she had the option to leave now if she couldn’t stand the ill treatment.. Healthwise, she protects herself by using condoms with all her clients and going for monthly medical checkup so she has no health fears of contracting any STIs or HIV. She has chosen to stay single for now because she believes that, “the men you meet in a place like this are just out to use you (opportunists) and move on. They are not ready to take on any responsibilities”.
Harriet’s cubicle has a picture of her younger siblings hanging on her wall. She was brought to Lagos from the South where she was schooling by a close friend to learn hair dressing which she never did. Now as a sex worker, she sends money home to help pay her brother’s secondary school fees and her parents’ upkeep. Her mother knows she’s a sex worker. In her words, “Any time I visit home my mother never wants me to return to this city. She always begs me to stay back.”. This is her only source of income as she has no other skills and despite her mother’s disapproval, she still accepts the money she makes from the trade.
Starring at us with eyes full of distrust. She describes her job for the past 1year and 3 months as hustling to make ends meet and at the same time pay her brother’s way through the polytechnic . She has a boyfriend, but he like others, has no idea of her profession. When asked if she would have sex with a client without a condom for triple her usual charge , she exclaimed, “Who wants to die?”. When asked how she felt and if any thing could be done to make the conditions of sex workers better, she said, “ I am suffering here and there is nothing any body can do about it. if I get a better option I would leave the sex trade.”
The signs at the entrance to her cubicle caught our attention as one of them read, “use condom”. She seemed educated as her command of language and general conversation was very good. A mother of two, for her it wasn’t a case of being deceived or tricked into the trade and she was here to hustle because she had responsibilities. With the money she makes from here, she sponsors her younger siblings and her two children who live with their father. She would like to learn a trade depending on what it was as long as the training would not take too much of her time or a very long period to master. Her high point of the job is the financial reward at the end of the day as the lowest amount she makes a day is about N2000 ($17). Her low points, was the starting rate of N300 - N400 ($3)for services which she felt is very low. For her this was just a job to make money and not a place to bond or make friends. Health wise , she said, “Only God protects. Despite the fact that I strictly insist on the use of condoms, sometimes insisting clients use up to two or four at once , there are situations where the condoms bursts open. So only God protects”. When asked if she would have sex without a condom for a higher amount , she said no, instead when she met such clients, she didn’t mind spending time trying to educate and convince them about the advantages of using a condom. “Excellent client service and manner of approach are very important in this business. I have been accused of using juju due to the fact that my clients keep coming back for my services”. She had encountered an aggressive client only once and that was at the beginning. “I charged the man, N400 ($3)as he wanted “ short rest”. After his time was up, I asked him to get off me as I was tired. He got angry and asked for his money back that since he didn’t ejaculate, he hadn’t gotten what he paid for. When I refused he started fighting me, in the end, at the instruction of the manager, I had return his money.”
At twenty seven was married and a mother of two. In her words , “I am here for a purpose.” Her husband did not treat her well as a full time housewife. As she had no regular income she was financially dependent on him. His attitude made her take a “bold step” of making money for her self as no one was willing to help her financially. She left her children last year with her mother in law (she still visits them from time to time ) and since she had no capital to start a provision business as she would have loved to, she went into sex work where she charges between N500 ($4.2) to N5000 ($42), depending on the services required by the client. She believes that as a woman she should be able to buy herself basic things and also provide for her children.
She was trying to save up some money to start a provision business. “Customer service in this business is very important and that is what I give my clients, which is why I have never had any problems with any clients or encountered aggressive or abusive clients”. She says getting into fights is not worth it because she might get injured and at the end of the day spend the money given to her by them in treating herself, so fighting is a waste of her time .She is aware of Sexually Transmitted Infections and other diseases as her motto is “Prevention is better than cure”. Apart from STIs, she said, sex was not the only way through which HIV could be contracted, blades, needles and other sharp objects which could pierce the skin could also transfer these infections. She doesn’t share blades and needles. She uses a condom with all her clients as it would help prevent unwanted pregnancies and infections. Her high points of her job is her financial independence. She believes that where there is life there is hope as her feelings towards her job are ambivalent as she does it to make ends meet. Put in her words “I am not comfortable with it but I am comfortable” .The government could help by providing loans through microfinance banks to help people who are willing to be helped because there are people who actually enjoy sex work and are not ready to leave but if she if offered alternatives, she would gladly leave.
The outside picture of the sex trade is quite different from the inside, as was revealed by our chat. Some assume that women in this industry are immoral and carefree, which in some cases is not always true. What is important to note is the fact that, the desire to escape poverty and its pressures in our society is inevitable and as a result some women, have been forced to sell sex for money so they can fend for family and personal needs. The girls I met here are not different from the general population. Most important is the fact that they are very concerned about their health and well being and also their families. Most interesting is the fact that some of them actually do care about their spirituality too.