LOUD WHISPERS: The Lost Angels
A few days ago, I received a message on WhatsApp from a friend. There was a video he wanted me to look at and do something about. I don’t like it when I am bombarded with dozens of meaningless videos, photos and other visuals on WhatsApp, but I have resigned myself to their inevitability. I watched the video clip, and it was a good thing I was not eating at the time. It put me off food for most of the day, and it also kept me up past my bedtime. I have probably become so familiar with the abuse and degradation of women that it is hard for me to be shocked by what I see or hear. However, the video I watched shocked and shook me. It is heartbreaking that after so many years of campaigning about the dangers of voluntary or involuntary trafficking of young women, we still have thousands of them languishing in awful places at home and abroad, forced to perform unspeakable sex acts.
The person who sent me the video claimed that it was about our girls who are in Libya and have been turned into sex slaves. The video showed a young black woman, with her face visible, so she could be identified by anyone who knows her. She was tied up, spread eagled, and it was not quite clear whether she was consenting to all the terrible things being done to her by the Arab looking man who was violating and whipping her intermittently. The man’s face was not totally visible – no surprise there. It was one of the most disgusting things I have ever seen, and I almost mentally cursed the person who sent it to me. I hardly ever share trivia on social media, and I was certainly not going to continue the circulation of this horrible video. I however did send it to my friend Hon. Abike Dabiri-Erewa, the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Foreign Affairs and Diaspora Relations. She responded right away and told me she thought the video was a clumsy attempt at pornography. She has received a lot of information about the fate of our young women in countries such as Libya. Since, as is the case with most illegal immigration, the Nigerian authorities in those countries have no record of them, and the host country does not want anything to do with them either, they are in a kind of Twilight Zone. They fall into the hands of underground vermin who use them to traffic drugs, run guns and as sex slaves. When they are no longer useful or commit what would be regarded as serious offences, they are finished off. We keep losing so many young people who slip out of the country and find their way into these lands, never to be seen again. According to Hon Abike Dabiri-Erewa, all we can do is continue to raise awareness about the dangers of illegal migration, especially for young women.
In the global women’s movement, there is a disagreement over the issue of commercial sex work. There are those who argue that no woman should have to work as a prostitute, and that the act of prostitution is degrading and dehumanizing. There is the other camp that argues that prostitution is legitimate work that should be properly recognized and remunerated, with rights to health and safety, and women’s rights to commercial sex work (as opposed to the value laden word ‘Prostitution’) should be recognized and protected. And there are those like me, who do not accept that women should have to engage in sex work for a living, but recognize that should they want to do so out of choice or circumstance, it should be safe for both them and their customers, with their rights to dignity and bodily integrity respected. In this context, it does not matter to me whether the young woman in the video consented to the acts or not, she does not deserve to be treated like rubbish.
This also brings me to the story that appeared in the UK Daily Mail this week, about Nigerian sex workers in a Lagos slum, many of them HIV positive. If we continue to treat the issue of commercial sex work with hypocrisy and ignorance, the numbers of human time bombs moving around will increase. Almost all programs I am aware of targeting sex workers in African communities are focused on ‘rehabilitation’ and ‘redemption’. Yes, sex workers should be moved on to ‘more respectable’ sources of income, but for those who are in the business whether by choice or not, there has to be a focus on providing adequate healthcare, safe sex practices, treatment, counselling and protection from abuse. We ignore all these issues at our own peril. Their customers are usually people’s husbands, fathers, brothers and sons, and they will continue to endanger all the innocent women in their lives. I was once Chair of one of the State AIDS Control Agencies, and I insisted that we had to run a program in collaboration with brothels. I noted the alarmed looks on the faces of some of the officers.
Our definition of who a sex worker is also needs revision. In my own opinion, it is usually a question of geography. There are more commercial sex workers in our countries these days off the streets than we have parading red light districts at night.
Many of the young women who are lured out of the country with promises of work find themselves in desperate situations. If they find themselves on the sex market in Arab countries, they will have cause to regret their very existence. Most Arab-African countries such as Libya, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and so on have a negative attitude towards black Africans. In those countries African people are still perceived as slaves, and it is no surprise considering the fact that slavery was not abolished in a country like Mauritania till 1981! The fate of the thousands of African women working in the Middle East as domestic workers is well known. In addition to working very long hours, they are often forced to endure sexual abuse by their employers. If African women and girls are perceived as no more valuable than slaves, this has implications for how they will be treated if they are forced into, or choose the sex trade. It means they will be treated no different from animals, and this is exactly how the young woman in the video I watched was treated.
All the years I worked on immigration policies in the UK and other European countries, I came to terms with the fact that for as long as there is uneven development in many parts of Africa, there will always be people of all ages who want to migrate in search of greener pastures. We have all seen the increasing desperation with which people attempt to cross desserts and oceans to get to their promised lands. This desire has unfortunately become so intense that we have gradually lost our humanity in the process. At a forum on international diplomacy and migration in Abuja, May 2015, a senior Nigerian diplomat told the meeting about his experience in one of the Northern African countries. He had been called to identify a group of illegal immigrants in a dessert camp. Most of them were women, and they were mostly half naked, covered in sand. He was able to identify at least half of them as Nigerian, but they told him they did not want to go back home. They were so far away from home, being held under the most terrible conditions and had gone through goodness knows what, but the last thing they wanted was to be repatriated back home. The diplomat said he had no choice but to leave them alone. People in those kinds of camps are of course very vulnerable. Some die of disease and neglect. Many get sold off, and either end up in the sex industry or have their organs harvested as part of the underground donor organ trade.
Sex and human trafficking are tough nuts to crack, complicated with the high number of people who engage in voluntary trafficking. Let us hope our law enforcement authorities can enforce the anti-trafficking laws we have in place, in ways which do not violate freedom of movement. Let us do whatever we can to provide opportunities for young people, so that they do not have to make such poor choices. Young women should not have to go so far away to be treated like animals and buried like dogs should something happen to them. We should also get real and start addressing the issues of commercial sex work on our doorstep. The oldest profession in the world is not going away anytime soon.
As for the faceless man in the video, may he get his comeuppance one day. I hope he does not have daughters.
Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a Gender Specialist, Social Entrepreneur and Writer. She is the Founder of Abovewhispers.com, an online community for women. She can be reached at BAF@abovewhispers.com