By Martha Kargbo
‘The only way I can make money and be able to take care of my family is through sex. It is my only means of survival. I can’t survive without sex. I was introduced to this trade six years ago by a friend’
Those were the words of twenty-eight years old ‘Randi’, not her real name, who is a commercial sex worker. She is among the few sex workers who work during the day in a pub located in the central part of Freetown.
‘Commercial sex is the only means of survival for me and my family, which includes my younger sister, brother and grandmother. A friend introduced me to this trade when I was seventeen, immediately after I had lost my parents. Life was difficult for me and my siblings.’ says twenty-two years old ‘Brenda’, not her real name, who also works as a commercial sex worker at night and sometimes during the day.
Twenty-eight year old Randi continued, “every morning, I prepare and send my ten-year old daughter to school, give money to my younger sister who is living with me, to prepare food for the three of us, dress up formally and leave the house. When I get to the pub, I change into something sexy so that I can attract men in need of sex. Late in the evening, I change back into my formal dress and go home.”
“I tell my sister, daughter and neighbours that I work at a restaurant because I don’t want them to know what I do for a living. I also don’t want a man who I have had sex with for money to know my address. I only work during day, and I stay very far from where I hang out for men’ she said with a forlorn look on her face.
Randi says working during the day as a commercial sex worker minimizes police harassment and helps her get some ‘good clients’ because there are some men who need ‘hot sex’ during the day and can pay for whatever it costs.
‘Satisfying men sexually during the day when it is hot or cold is a skill and I have it. That’s why I now have some customers who come here in search of me or call me to meet them where I feel safe. Sometimes I make enough money in a single day that enables me to take care of myself and family for a whole week or more but there are some days I make nothing. Most of the money I make, I use to take care of my daughter who is in JSS1 and attends a private school. I will never tell her that I am a commercial sex worker and will do all I can for her not to know or get into to this trade.’
When twenty-three year old Renda speaks again, she says, “I don’t go out often because I have customers who have my contact and can reach me whenever they want to have sex with me. I have been in this game for a while so I know how to satisfy men of different colures, age, size, background and time. Some nights, I hang out around top pubs and beaches where I meet men who don’t negotiate to pay for sex. But sometimes during the day, clients who have my contacts and in need of ‘hot sex’ call or pick me up and if where they want us to meet where it is safe for me, I go there and after having sex with them, they pay me with bonus for satisfying their urgent sexual need’. I feel good when men who I sexually satisfy pay for my service’.
Brenda says working at night is challenging because she and her colleagues are faced with Police, thuggery and harassment as well as some men who don’t want to pay them after sex. However, she says “working at night enables us to make more money because that is when high profiled men – nationals and foreigners search for us’
She says she uses most of the money she makes to take care of her grandma and younger brother and sister who are going to school and saves some in her account. She says she doesn’t want her family to know how she makes her money.
Randi, Brenda and their colleagues at their various points across town stressed that they use condoms always as they sometimes get supply from National Aids Secretariat (NAS) or buy. They spoke of how they feel happy when men pay them more than the money they demand for sex.
Another twenty-one year old commercial sex worker said “sometimes, we have sex with four or five men during the day or night. Sometimes one man hires two or three of us together for sex all at the same time and that is what we call ‘specialist sex’.
In the area of their health, these commercial sex workers said they have medical officers who do regular check-ups on them and treat them whenever they fall ill.
A twenty-four year old commercial sex worker however expressed fear for their lives
“sometimes our colleagues are stabbed, strangled or drugged or even killed and sometimes accused of stealing because some men do not want to pay after having sex with us’.
They spoke of their intent to leave the commercial sex trade if they can get help for their families and support to continue with their studies. Randi says she wants to study nursing and Renda says she wants to become a makeup artist.
Julie Sesay, the Programme Manager for AdvocAid, a nongovernmental organization that provides legal aid to women in conflict with the law says that the Police arrest commercial sex workers even when they do not commit an offence.
“Most times, our paralegals who visit Police stations do meet commercial sex workers in cells and we are called to bail them because their families and society consider them as outcasts”.
She stressed that if the police are arresting women for commercial sex, they are arresting people for something that the law is not clear about. Sesay said that the number of sex workers is not fixed and they are all over the country and are exposed to minor and major abuses against them.
The spokesman for the Sierra Leone Police (SLP) Superintendent Brima Kamara denied the allegation of harassment against the SLP. “We do warn before making arrest for loitering but don’t arrest commercial sex workers. There was an incident where Police officers were accused of unlawful arrest, harassment and taking bribe from commercial sex workers that we investigated and took the necessary actions. After that, we warned officers not to harass women who are out on the street at night or day as long as they are not involved in crime”. He also said that the SLP don’t want to arrest people for something that the law is not clear about.
Derek Nat-Gorge is the public relations officer for the Legal Aid Board– a state free legal service. “Recently” he said. “We facilitated the release of commercial sex workers from police custody. We are also working on a dialogue platform between commercial sex workers and law enforcers because they law is not clear about commercial sex trade and these young women survive through it’.