International Sex Worker’s Day: Access to justice for sex workers should be our responsibility

One thing sex workers in Nigeria know on any given day is that access to justice is a pipe dream for them. The security apparatus in the country as the #ENDSARS protest magnified for the whole world to see is only another arm adding to the continuing social chokehold they are in due to the stigma attached to their line of work.

International Whores’ Day or International Sex Workers’ Day – celebrated every year on June 2 – gives an opportunity to take stock of the plight of sex workers across the globe, to put a spotlight on it and call it by its name: violence. 

The day was first commemorated in 1975 when hundreds of prostitutes gathered at the Church of Saint-Nigier in Lyon to protest inhumane working conditions. It’s been over 40 years since then, and nothing has changed. Sex workers are still routinely exploited.

Nigeria – for the most part as we have often documented – largely doesn’t criminalise sex work. The legal position on sex work varies from Northern Nigeria to Southern Nigeria, but one thing remains a constant regardless of what region one looks at – that the state does nothing to protect sex workers from exploitation.

Check out our documentary on Sex Workers in Lagos here.

Sex workers continue to get extorted by the police from Kano to Port Harcourt. The gravity of this extortion is that it goes beyond the financial into the bodily violation of sex workers by officers of the law who know they can get away with it because, “Who can they cry out to?”

Beyond harassment by state actors, the stigma attached to sex work thanks to a puritanical view of all things sex-related makes it hard for sex workers in active work to enjoy the same dignified treatment all people enjoy by virtue of their humanity. Worse still, it makes it near impossible for sex workers desirous of transitioning into other careers to do so easily.

Many sex workers who quit long ago often go through the rest of their lives with the dark cloud of that stigma hanging over them.

What needs to be done

While the immediate concern of anyone who genuinely has the well-being of sex workers at heart is to ensure they are legally protected like all law-abiding citizens going about their everyday hustle, we need to be equally invested in overhauling the culture of stigma in every capacity we can. 

From the individual to the collective, a good place to begin that overhaul is by changing how we see sex work.

Sex work, like bricklaying, is work. And in much the same way the latter has the potential to endanger one’s body in the line of duty, it is important for people who find sex work off-putting to ask themselves why they find that risk less off-putting than the risk of STD often cited as the reason sex work is particularly abhorrent.

The disease transmitter disdain that drives a lot of the stigma towards sex work is outdated in the modern world when access to medical services and advice is everywhere. If anything, the continued insistence on holding onto the stigma of our ancestors is what puts sex workers at great risk because shame is a price many human beings – sex workers or not – will avoid paying even at the risk of endangering their lives. And because of that they will avoid the facilities available to access these services for fear of hostility.

Access to justice for sex workers is important. Being treated with equal dignity is even more so. And that is on all of us.

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