July 6, 2015 By Gabriel Benjamin
Looking innocent but not at all shy, the girl – about 17 years old – emerges from nowhere, and whispers into a man’s ear, “I will do you well. Just Le30,000 for short time.” Suddenly, another group of ladies walk by, flaunting their buttocks raunchily, with a good chunk of their cleavages showing open invitation for any interested parties. Welcome to Freetown’s red light district – The Light Bus Stop, Brookfields. Time is 1 am.
These girls between the ages of 16 and 25 are peripatetic; older ones are more active in beer parlors. There is some competitiveness in the business as the younger ones strive to outflank the older ones for patronage. “As you can see, there’s competition in this business. That is why I take my time while servicing my client. I want my customers to keep coming,” says Fadima, a sex worker at Fowl Cop, Eastern Freetown.
Commercial sex, the practice of providing sexual services in return for payment or other immediate compensation, is one of the world’s oldest professions. In Freetown, it has gained currency in particularly the past 10 years. “It used to be something that ladies and men did under the veil of darkness; these days, it’s an open spectacle,” says Alusine Sesay, a journalist.
Selling sex is not in itself illegal, but operating brothels and soliciting are. Currently, in Sierra Leone, sex work is technically illegal. But in the UK, Netherlands and Germany, sex for cash is legal. Legalization means that only licensed sex workers operating in certain premises are allowed. This is also true in the U.S. states of Nevada, New Jersey, etc., where only the highly regulated and very restrictive brothels are legal.
“Prostitution is generally seen as a global menace. It’s also a threat to public health. As ugly as it seems, it is an important test of our religious beliefs and morality as no religion or culture approves it,” says Chris Osaretin, a pastor with the Revival Power Ministries.
At night, commercial sex workers are in active business at Lumley Beach, Brookfields around Youyi building, Bode Ose at Texaco Junction and Lamsat by Helina Junction (East of Freetown), Fowl Cop, Gloucester Street behind Bank of Sierra Leone, etc.
Pastor Osaretin calls the situation ‘modern day Sodom and Gomorrah’. “It looks more like a carnival, as men, including the very affluent and powerful, patronize these prostitutes.”
Mr. Abdul Jalloh, who lives around Gloucester Street, says that illicit drugs and marijuana business also thrive wherever there are prostitutes. Drugs are often what fire their adrenalin. At Bode Ose, the stench of marijuana is strong in the air.
Ms. Diana Coker says that Brookfields has been taken over by prostitutes. “The rate at which commercial sex is growing in this part of Freetown is quite alarming. This place is turning into hub for ‘raray’ girls [commercial sex workers] even with the Ebola outbreak.”
Why do young girls consider prostitution a lucrative enterprise? Financial hardship and desperation, harsh economic conditions, influence of pimps, love breakups, unemployment, etc. are some of the catalysts. “I have been a prostitute for years, and my tools are still very active. If you want to confirm, let’s get down to business,” says Jeminatu, to Concord Times.
Jeminatu may have placed undue burdens on her so-called “tools” but Memunatu, a commercial sex worker in Brookfields, further explains financial needs were the most alluring factor. She turned to prostitution as a last resort to raise money to upkeep herself and her 5 year-old daughter. That was after the landlord threw her belongings out, unable to pay her rent. “My friend said if she could do it and live like a big girl, I too can.”
How much do her clients pay? “The bargain depends on the time and desperation. We charge between Le30,000 and Le50,000 for short time and for all night it’s from Le100,000. If my client agrees, I…lead him to any of the brothels around here, where he pays a token of Le10,000 for short time rest.” Also in Brookfields, Rebecca says, “I prefer short time, it’s quicker. I make more money from it, but when it’s getting late anything goes.”
Finda at Lamsat, Eastern Freetown gave a condition under which she could quit prostitution. “If you want me to stop prostitution, come and marry me. If I am in my husband’s house he will provide all my needs, then I don’t have to prostitute for money.”
Adama, a former cleaner in a hotel at Aberdeen before becoming a prostitute says, “A friend who did it said it’s fast money. I cannot say easy money because it’s not easy. Anyone who thinks this is easy money is wrong.”
Meeting men of different characters is part of the thrill and frill of prostitution “In this business you meet all kinds of persons, difficult persons who come with fantasies,” squirms Adama. Some men just turn up; tell her something dreadful and leave. She finds those ones irritating. “But, I just have to be flexible, and do whatever they need just to get the money.”
The desire to be independent is another reason why prostitution is on the rise in Freetown. According to Rahimeh, “I have no regrets about doing this job. It’s not something that I’m desperate to get out of, but I feel it’s something I need to do as a single girl who desires independence. I don’t need any man to order me around.”
The social, health and psychological consequences of prostitution have not slowed the business. Annisatu, who operates at Lumley Beach, claims to be a student of one of the higher institutions. “I know what I am doing is bad… I might even contract STDs, but if I don’t go out at night, I will not eat, will not pay transport to school and my fees.”
“Sickness or no sickness, I make sure my customers use condom,” says another sex worker in Lumley beach, who preferred anonymity.
Farrida never used to insist on condoms until she contracted gonorrhea, a sexually transmitted disease. “These days, I am careful,” she says.
The communication coordinator of the National HIV/AIDs Secretariat (NAS), Mr. Abubakarr Koroma, says that NAS does not have a responsibility to get commercial sex workers off the street. Mr. Koroma said that the government had advised the prostitutes to get off the street and provided vocational training for those who needed such training.
“But you know you can’t force anyone to learn a vocation. If someone is hell-bent on indulging in sex for cash, there is little that NAS can do to stop that.”
Meantime, the Sierra Leone police continue to clamp down on these prostitutes. The scale of the business may be overwhelming for the police. The better thing to do is deal with the root cause of the problem, says Mohamed Idrissa, a trader at Lumley Beach. “Attending to their economic, social and psychological needs could be a better panacea, to make the business unattractive.”
The police could also target men who patronize the prostitutes. “It is not possible for these ladies to prostitute if there are no customers. Starving the market of buyers seems a better option than arresting and handcuffing prostitutes,” suggests Mr. Abdul Wurie, a Brookfields resident.
Parliament could also make laws criminalizing men who buy sex and the pimps that profit from the trade. “If you criminalize the men and the pimps, the women will not be compelled into selling their bodies,” says Rachael Sesay, the presenter of ‘Tell it to Rachael’ televisionshow.
Despite the larger society’s outward irritation over the increasing spate of prostitution, and the increasing aggressiveness of law enforcement personnel, it is clear that the wind is at the back of commercial sex workers – at least until the environments become disabling.