Nigeria: Prostitutes Declare War Over Condom Usage

Nigeria: Prostitutes Declare War Over Condom Usage 

Human Immune Virus (HIV) which causes Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) was first diagnosed in the United States in 1981. The plague hit Nigeria with two cases in 1985, including that of a thirteen year old girl which was reported to international AIDS conference in 1986. Since then, there has been steady rise of cases all over the world with the developing nations especially in sub Saharan Africa most hit in contracting the deadly disease that has no cure at present. 

Currently, it is estimated by UNAIDS/WHO that about 33.4 million people in the globe are living with HIV/AIDS, with Nigeria accounting for about 3.5 million recorded cases. Interestingly, the 2009 AIDS epidemic update shows there has been significant drop in the number of new HIV infections suggesting that HIV prevention programmes have had a significant impact, according to BBC reports. It was revealed that in Nigeria, 3.1 per cent of adults between 15-49 years are living with HIV/AIDS. Although the HIV prevalence is much lower in Nigeria than in other African countries such as South Africa and Zambia, the size of Nigeria's population (around 140 million) meant that government must put measures in place to avert new infections. 

Unfortunately, governments at all levels in the country were slow in responding to HIV/AIDS epidemic and check the spread of the deadly virus, even as some Nigerians were yet to believe that AIDS was indeed a reality, as they tagged the syndrome American Invention to Discourage Sex, (AIDS). However, in 1991, attempts were made to asses the situation which already had 1.8 per cent Nigerians infected with the virus. The prevalence rose during the 1990s from 3. 8 per cent in 1993 to 4.5 per cent in 1998. Alarmed by the development, former president Olusegun Obasanjo set up a Presidential Committee on AIIDS and later the National Action Committee on AIDS,{NACA), in 2001. Again, the Federal Government rolled out a three year HIV/AIDS Emergency Action Plan (HEAP) and equally hosted the first All African Summit on HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and other related infectious diseases, all geared towards check-mating the HIV/AIDS scourge. 

Despite these efforts to stem the rise of infections, in 2007,170,000 people died from AIDS in Nigeria. With AIDS claiming so many lives, Nigeria's life expectancy has declined significantly. In 1991, the average life expectancy was 53 years for women and 52 for men. In 2007, these figures had fallen to 46 for women and 47 for men. If nothing is done to improve healthcare of the people, these figures might still nose-dive to very frightening level. Of the 3.5 million Nigerians living with HIV/AIDS, 34.5 per cent are commercial sex workers scattered all over the nation. Despite enlightenment campaigns on risks of contracting HIV/AIDS by the Federal Ministry of Health, corporate organizations, religious bodies and Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs), brothels where commercial sex workers sell their bodies remain beehive of activities as male clients troop to these bad spots to catch fun with their customers, thereby exposing themselves to the risks of contracting HIV/AIDS in the process. 

Angrily lamenting the danger posed by this disease, the late Dr. Olukoye Ransome-Kuti who was minister of health said that, "Our country will get to the stage where the manufacturing of coffins will be the most lucrative trade if we did not act fast to check the spread of HIV/AIDS." That 3.5 million Nigerians are HIV positive is no longer news, neither the disclosure that 34.2 per cent of carriers of this deadly virus are commercial sex workers. The main disturbing issue is that whereas awareness is very important, to some, it is rather too late as they are already positive. The only good thing government could do for such unfortunate people are to make anti - viral drugs affordable so that they can live positively with their positive status. 

However, it is imperative that awareness is created among commercial sex workers since they are regarded as high risk group and must have their male partners to remain in business, who also must be protected from contracting the disease. But creating awareness alone is not comprehensive enough, as it is suppose to be followed up by practice to reduce prevalence rate, especially from the high risk group to others relatively considered safe on paper, by encouraging the use of condom during sexual intercourse. 

It was the need to find out the level of awareness of HIV/AIDS among sex workers and to know if they protect themselves and their clients from contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, (STIs) by insisting on condom usage during sex that led this reporter to embark on this study of behavioural pattern of call-girls during sexual activity. 

The significant of the study is better appreciated when one is aware of HIV prevalence in the country which unfortunately has gone up again, and also the fact that commercial sex workers are the study population of this investigation. It is expected that this study shall expose their knowledge or ignorance of HIV/AIDS, so that health workers, government and others involved in enlightening sex workers on this scourge shall have idea of the level of success recorded on HIV/AIDS awareness campaign and plan more strategies to create and sustain awareness. 

Subsequently, this investigation was limited to brothels in Lagos State. It was also restricted to know if the sex workers use condom during sexual intercourse as a measure to halt the spread of HIV. For this purpose, six brothels were chosen for sampling. The brothels are; Maysun, Oshodi, Muwazani, Ojota, Jolly Friends, Ikeja, Ikoyi club relaxation arena, Aiyepe, Ketu, and Coconut Inn, Ojuelegba. 

Already, there are some groups involved in creating HIV/AIDS awareness not only among sex workers but to all Nigerians considered at risk of contracting the virus. Some of the groups are; Nigeria media houses, Society for Women and AIDS in Africa(SWAN), Stop AIDS Organization of Nigeria, Hope Worldwide, Medianet Nigeria, Centre for Sustained Campaign against Sexually Transmitted Diseases, Society for Family Health Support, Family Federation for World Peace (FFWP), The Scripture Union and Nigerian Youths AIDS programme, among others. 

Apart from creating awareness, some of these organizations distributed millions of condoms free to sex workers in Lagos and also gave them free T- Shirts, posters, handbills, stickers all geared towards creating more awareness about the monster called HIV/AIDS. They also encouraged the sex workers to go for free HIV test and counselling at designated government and private hospitals within Lagos. 

During the study, it is imperative to state that the collection of data was by oral interviews, personal interaction and observation of mode of operation of the study population. Oral interview was chosen for data collection because of inability of some sex workers to create time to fill questionnaires, while those who are literate enough to fill questionnaires considered it a distraction from their business. As one of them called Kate told this writer, "Ashawo (prostitute in Yoruba} will not have time for this your work. You are just disturbing us. I thought you came for business to see us as customer, instead you want to ask question. If you want Ashawo to answer you, you must drop something." And true to Kate's position, those who agreed to talk to me demanded free drinks, cigarettes and small cash before they granted me audience. The face- to- face interview paid off as it made the respondents to understand the purpose of the investigation and created room for follow- up questions which produced insights that questionnaires would not have provided. In interviewing the study population, the systematic sampling technique was adopted to ensure equitable representation in order to justify any generalization. Five samples were taken from each brothel, making a total of 30 respondents in all. 

The structured oral questions are; Are you aware of the disease called HIV/AIDS?, How did you get to know about HIV/AIDS?, Do you know that you are in the high risk group of contracting and spreading HIV/AIDS?, Do you insist your clients or customers wear condom before sex?, Can you have sex without condom?, Have you gone for HIV test?. These questions directed to respondents were structured to obtain direct answer of YES or NO to facilitate systematic analysis. Though some respondents further elaborated their answers, the basic information needed was obtained the moment the respondent answered YES or NO. Additional information from respondents shall be addressed after the main analysis. 

Interestingly, in the first research question, 30 over 30 of the sex workers which represent 100 per cent agreed that they know about the disease called HIV/AIDS, which is a good development in the fight against the spread of the disease. On the second question made to know how they actually heard about the disease to ensure that messages passed to the public on HIV/AIDS were not waste of time, 11 got the information about the disease from newspapers, 8 through the radio, 14 on television, 15 through various NGOs and 11 again got the information from a combination of all the channels. In fact, evidence of their contact with the NGOs was displayed in their rooms, bars and restaurants in form of HIV/AIDS posters, stickers, handbills and pamphlets. 

On whether they know that they are among the high risk group exposed to the virus, 30 over 30 representing 100 per cent admitted that they know of the danger involved in their line of trade which if not adequately protected during sex could expose them more to the virus. Answering the question on the use of condom, 25 respondents said that nothing on earth will make them have casual sex without their clients wearing condoms; while 5 respondents surprisingly, among the samples, said that they could indeed have casual sex flesh to flesh. 

This trend is very dangerous. If 25 representing 83.33 per cent insists on condom before sex and 5 which represents16.66 per cent though in the minority could actually jump into bed and have it raw, unprotected with their willing male counterparts who probably are married, those clients in turn will infect their wives with the virus once they contract it. And even those of them who are single but have girlfriends will end up infecting the unlucky girls with the deadly incurable virus. 

Therefore this disclosure by the minority 5 should put more pressure on NGOs to intensify awareness campaigns for insistence on the use of condoms by sex workers at all time no matter the pressure from any client. 

The 5 respondents who could have sex without condoms blamed the insistence of some clients who usually pay heavy amount just to have the flesh to flesh feeling at the expense of their safety, and also dull business moments which made them vulnerable to clients who capitalized on lack of male clients or customers as the sex workers call them, to dictate the terms of operation during sex. A manager in one of the brothels simply identified as Emma, told this writer that, "Because the girls negotiate from the position of weakness during dull moments as they needed money desperately which was what took them to prostitution in the first instance, they could risk their lives and expose themselves just to make the money to pay the numerous bills charged by the owners of these brothels. But apart from pressing that sex workers should use condom, their male clients must be educated to use condom each time they expose themselves to casual sex to avoid a situation of had I known. The fact is that all classes of people patronize these girls, including some pastors who sneak under the cover of darkness to have quick fun." 

As one of the call-girls called Grace put it, "It is not that we encourage men to do it without condom. But some stupid men who come here to enjoy our thing usually refused to use condom. And there are times we experience bad business when there are few men in the brothel. Ashawo must pay house rent of N7, 000 a week, police money of N2, 000 every two weeks, sanitation levy of N500 a week and beside, Ashawo will eat, buy skimpy clothes to seduce customers and send money to her people back home."

Her colleague called Mandy equally disclosed that, "So when it is time to pay these bills and Ashawo has not made the required money, temptation sets in and that Ashawo can do the unimaginable including having sex without condom and even allowing more than three to four men to have sex with her on the same bed in order to raise money for these levies. If any Ashawo fails to pay any of these levies at stipulated time, her door will be locked by manger and she must pay fine of N10, 000 before the door is reopened." 

However, another call-girl called Inih told this writer angrily that, "I will fight any man who attempts to force me or give me even millions of naira to sleep with him without condom In fact, it will be total war against that useless man because I will rather die than allow any idiot give me HIV/AIDS for any reason. I would not mind to cut off the manhood of any man who will attempt that rubbish on me. If any man is not ready to have me with condom, then let him go. I know of some girls who can sex without condom because of the money involved, but definitely not me." 

Another girl, Onome, whom I wondered what such a pretty girl was doing here, debasing her highly irresistible figure 8 body in the brothel disclosed that," Well I have been tempted to do this thing without condom but I managed to resist the temptation of having N20,000 just within minutes. But thank God I overcame the temptation. However, some girls can't resist it and in the process of making quick huge money they land themselves in ugly situations." 

Yet a highly annoyed Jennifer thundered, "Any useless man who attempts to have sex with me without using condom has stepped on the Tiger's tail and I will declare war against him. How can some body I don't know his sexual history want to sleep with me unprotected? To be honest, not only me but all Ashawo who believe in protecting themselves will join me to fight that idiot. Though there are some useless Ashawo’s who can do anything for money in this brothel, including having sex without condom, I, Jennifer can never do that, even if a gun is pointed at my head. It is better to be killed by the gun than to die a shameful and agonizing death from AIDS." 

The last question was to find out how many of them have gone for HIV test to know their status. Only 2 respondents which represents 6.66 per cent went for HIV test while28 representing 93.33 per cent have not gone for test and therefore do not know their status. Despite pressure mounted on the 2 that claimed they had gone for the test to disclose their status to this writer, they refused, insisting that the results are private documents which they reserve the right to disclose or not. 

The 28 respondents who have not gone for test gave the following reasons for shunning the test; fear of knowing that they are HIV positive; the social stigma attached to people living with HIV/AIDS, and lack of serious government policies on HIV/AIDS which guarantees protection and care for victims and lastly they refused to go for test because no cure has been found for the disease yet, as one of them captured it, " It is better I don't know my status than getting to find that I’m positive when no cure has been found for HIV/AIDS. In this situation of no cure, ignorance of my status and some of colleagues remains the best option for us, now." 

In my findings, bearing in mind that the use of condom has not attained 100 per cent among commercial sex workers in Lagos which is the target of NGOs , government , corporate and religious organizations involved in awareness campaigns, the following recommendations were suggested. 

That the federal and Lagos State Governments should review the existing policies on HIV/AIDS and make them more active and victim friendly so that those positive individuals who have been hiding in their shells can boldly come out to declare their status and benefit from the largesse lined up for carriers. The Federal Government should increase allocation to those involved in enlightening commercial sex workers through the Petroleum Funds so that they can reach out more to sex workers , giving them care , free condoms and monitoring their general welfare. 

Governments should understand that some of their highly placed officials patronize these sex workers secretly and therefore are likely to contract the virus through their risky behaviours. So the earlier government comes in by pumping more money into campaigns on HIV/ AIDS instead of attaching importance and spending money on mundane issues, the better for all of us. 

I discovered that the awareness campaign should be taken to the brothels in the morning hours between 9-12 noon, during which business has not started seriously for the sex workers. During this period, they sit in groups discussing, gossiping and saying erotic or obscene things. Therefore, HIV/ AIDS awareness films or videos could be played for them before late afternoon and night fall when business starts and they will not be in position to listen to any thing that will not put money into their pockets. 

The awareness campaigners should emphasis to sex workers that no matter the pressure from any client, they must insist that he wears condom and any client who refuses to put on condom should be politely turned down by the sex worker. 

I believe that if these recommendations are implemented, they will go a long way in directing sex workers right and making them more responsible at least to protect themselves from this dreaded scourge of HIV/AIDS, which at the time of filing this story, has no cure yet, any where in the world, despite claims and counter claims by some people that they have found cure for this stubborn disease. 

Daily Champion, 2010.01.04, Ebenezer Edohasim