I was privileged to spend 90 minutes with a group of sex workers in Jos the other day. Their stories were sobering and enlightening. — Dave
Though Zulei Isa is a retired sex worker, she continues to lead a group of 14 other women, both Muslim and Christian, who make their living as prostitutes. She advises them on how to protect themselves from STDs and AIDS and counsels them as they deal with the challenges of their trade.
Over the more than twenty years that Zulei plied her trade, she only really understood just before her retirement, the dangers of unprotected sex that can lead to life threatening ailments. Now she counsels others.
Amina Ahmed is the Executive Director of WISCOD (Women’s Initiative for Sustainable Development) who works with many of the issues surrounding HIV/AIDS in Jos, Nigeria. She and her colleagues teach their predominantly Muslim community about HIV/AIDS and encourage testing and safe living. They work with traditional birth attendants, teaching them skills that protect both mother and child. And because of a project they embarked on a year ago, Peer Education Plus, they began working with a group of people they had never engaged before — sex workers.
Amina shares that working with these women has been an education. She did not know that there were a significant number of women living in the city who made their living at night. Some, she discovered were girls as young as 13. She learned that some 16-year old girls were the primary income earners for their families through the sale of their bodies. Often pregnancies resulted so children were another reality that these women had to care for.
None of the women Amina spoke with grew up imagining a career as a prostitute. Many felt like they had no choice. They found that they needed to survive and other traditional systems of support – parents, husbands, community – had failed them. In their desperation, they learned from peers that their bodies were in demand.
Over the last 15 years insecurity has increased in Jos and so has the increase of security personnel – police and military – who are often placed away from their families. As is the case in other parts of the world, the demand for the services of sex workers accompanies violence and war.
Rahma AbdulRahman was married at the age of 17 to a young man that she “loved so much”. Three years later a misunderstanding developed which led to divorce. Her parents, she says, were involved in trying to encourage them to work out their differences but in the end the marriage failed. Her next marriage was one of violence so she turned to her friends for support and they introduced her to the opportunity that she could sell her body in order to generate income. Amina AbdulRahman is the last of her five children.
Hawa Musa was forced into marriage with an older man at the age of 15. She still remembers this experience of 21 years ago as painful and without hope. When she left the man, her family rejected her and actually called the police to force her back to her “husband”. This was not the future she imagined for herself so she joined a friend who was already engaged in the world’s oldest profession as a way to survive. At this writing Hawa is pregnant with her 13th child, seven of whom have lived.
At the age of 17 Magajiya Lalwali was an active hard-drug user along with her boyfriend and other friends. In order to pay for their habit, the boyfriend encouraged Magajiya to sell her body. That was the beginning of a life she has been a part of for more than twenty years. She laughs off the question of children because of her many miscarriages.
Hawa and Magajiya rent a house together that has become a haven for many of the sex workers in the area. The rent is paid for by “the men” and everyone contributes food. There is a certain level of order and there is a community of support.
When Zulei Isa started to understand the dangers she had exposed her body to through the teaching of WISCOD staff, her fear that she might be HIV+ grew. Despite the encouragement they gave her to get tested, it took her some time to work up the courage to do so. When her results came back negative, she was thrilled. When her live-in boyfriend refused to get tested, she abandoned him and is now supporting herself as a small marketer in the community.
Zulei continues to counsel other young women who are considering selling their bodies, of the risks involved. If this is what they feel they must do, she gives them advice on safe sex. “The condom,” says Zulei, “is our ID Card. If a man refuses to use this protective device, we refuse to service him.”
Despite having been forced into an unsuccessful marriage at the age of 13, Zulei is not bitter. “I thank God for life; and I want to make life better for others because of my experience.”
— Dave Klassen, May 2015