Lagos — Patoo Abraham has become famous for fighting for the rights of prostitutes, but what she – and those she is trying to help – do to make a living is illegal and frowned upon by many in the country.
Abraham is not only proud of her profession but is also campaigning to ensure that prostitution is legalised and that sex workers are respected in Africa’s most populous country.
The 48-year-old has led a couple of protests in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital, demanding the rights of prostitutes in a country where sex vendors suffer physical harm at the hands of their punters.
Under the auspices of different organisations, scores of prostitutes marched on the streets of Lagos, chanting provocative slogans.
This boldness is unprecedented, and the protesters carried their signature red umbrellas and T-shirts with the inscription “Sex work is work, we need our rights.”
“We are tired of dying in silence,” Abraham, who heads the Nigerian chapter of African Sex Workers’ Alliance (ASWA), said. “We want to be able to practise our profession with pride like every other person. We want an end to name-calling and stigmatisation. We are sex workers and not asawo [a Yoruba derogatory name for prostitutes].”
Sex work, said Abraham, is normal work and that there are “sex workers everywhere under one form of disguise or the other”. “[The] government should stop criminalising our work,” said the woman who is also the president of the Women of Power Initiative (WOPI), a non-governmental organisation established to advance the cause of sex work in Nigeria.
Although Nigeria has posted impressive economic growth, overtaking South Africa to become Africa’s largest economy, unemployment remains widespread and many Nigerian women have ended up working as prostitutes in part because they cannot find work.
Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said in April that no fewer than 5.3 million youths are jobless, and the World Bank last year put the number of Nigerians living in destitution at 100 million.
With large earrings and a face flamboyantly made up, Abraham sat in her busy office, which she shares with another organisation, and told Al Jazeera how she took the advice of her sister, a former prostitute, when life as a single parent became too tough for her.
Though reluctant then, she now sees it as any other business and has no regrets.
“Just as you are proud of your profession, that is how I am proud of mine. Just as you are respected for being a journalist, that is how I want to be respected,” said Abraham.
Abraham uses the pseudonym “Patoo” in her daily work – a name she chose to hide her identity when she began work as a prostitute.
She said her two children – a son and a daughter – are at university and she pays tuition fees for them. They do not know her occupation, she said, although she marched on the streets of Lagos for all to see.
In this oil-rich country of more than 160 million people ravaged by poverty and deprivation, Abraham’s work seems lucrative. But Abraham and other women in this business still have the authorities and people to contend with.
One of the prostitutes who identified herself only as Janet, spoke of how police arrest them indiscriminately, raiding their brothel even when they are with their clients.
“Sometimes, after reluctantly paying for our services, they arrest us and take us to the [police] station and ask us to bail ourselves with the same amount they paid us, thereby recovering their money,” Janet said in pidgin English.
“Some of us sustain serious injuries when our customers beat us up and there is no one to protect us,” she added.
Other women raise even more serious complaints. Outspoken and HIV-positive, 35-year-old Ayide, the only name she gave in order to be quoted, attended one of the rallies and said it is not only the police to blame.
“When we talk about police, we are pointing accusing fingers at only one group. The fact is that all the uniformed men, especially the mobile police [paramilitary arm of the police], are oppressing us. They use their uniform to harass us. They extort money from us, beat us and rape us,” she said.
Abraham corroborated the claims of Janet and Ayide, saying that people who stigmatised them and the security agents who harassed them were a serious problem.
“People call us names but the funny thing is that they don’t even know if their wives, sisters or daughters are one of us,” she said in-between laughter.
“If I don’t tell you that I am a sex worker, you won’t know unless you see me here. Most of us are working as nurses in big hospitals, some are bankers and even students, but you won’t know.”
Even though they are prostitutes, they have every right to report rape and other human right abuses.
Philip Eze, the police officer in charge of Elere Police Division, Lagos, explained that the police would not arrest prostitutes were it not for the country’s criminal code outlawing prostitution.
“In the Nigerian criminal code, if somebody is soliciting for men, it is against the law and vice versa. The law does not cause confusions; we are the ones causing confusion in the name of the law. I don’t care if they have a world association, it is illegal in Nigeria and their assembly is illegal too,” Eze said.
Responding to allegations of extortion, sexual harassment, and rape by police, Eze said victims should report such cases and the offenders would be prosecuted.
“Even though they are prostitutes, they have every right to report rape and other human right abuses,” he said.
Meanwhile, the fight between prostitutes and the authorities continue.
Police occasionally raid brothels in Lagos and make sweeping arrests in red light areas like Kofo Abayomi, Victoria Island, Isaac John Street, and Allen Avenue.
Some of the lucky prostitutes end up in police cells where they are interrogated and eventually released on bail. Others end up serving jail terms of three to four months without an option of paying a fine after being charged for loitering, public indecency or disorderly conduct or engaging in acts inimical to the public good.
To stage the protest to mark the International Sex Workers’ Rights Day 2014 without a clash with the authorities, the prostitutes outsmarted the police, obtaining a permit under the auspices of WOPI.
They took their demands to the authorities at Shomolu Local Government, Lagos, where they were advised that legislators held the key to their demand.
Previous attempts by lawmakers to have prostitution legalised were unsuccessful.
In 2011, Senator Ike Ekweremadu, the Deputy Senate President of Nigeria, called for the complete legalisation of prostitution, saying this would enable the government to regulate the activities of prostitutes. The move sparked widespread criticism across the country and Ekweremadu later regretted his comment.
But Margaret Onah, the founder of Safe Haven Development Initiative and WOPI, who has campaigned for the rights of prostitutes, said she is still planning to take protests to the national assembly, and push for legislation that will decriminalise sex work and empower women.
“Nigerian law does not specifically say anything against prostitution,” Onah said.
“What it says is that if a girl is caught openly soliciting for sex, and money is being exchanged, she should be arrested. But we know that if a girl is staying in a brothel, and is a sex worker, the brothel is more or less like her home.” — Al Jazeera