7 March 2014

Cote d'Ivoire: Sex Workers Attacked in Abidjan

Sex workers in Adjamé Bracodi - a district in northern Abidjan in the Ivory Coast - were attacked by residents of the area on 26 January. Angry residents destroyed all the pubs where sex workers used to work, intending to kick them out of the area.

Josiane Tetty is the president of non-governmental organization (NGO) Blety, which runs HIV awareness activities among sex workers. She said: "Residents burned and ransacked all the chairs and armchairs and broke alcohol bottles. Worse, they wounded, with machetes, two partners of our comrades and the manager of a hotel where girls take their clients, saying they are among those who encourage the women to work in the sex trade."

Second assault

This is not the first attack against sex workers in the area of Adjamé. On 15 November 2013, a group of men armed with machetes, iron bars and bricks went to a site where sex workers operate to beat them and steal their belongings.

Titi*, a young sex worker, recalls how she was stripped naked by angry neighbours and exhibited as a trophy.

"It was so humiliating to me," she said. "What I found most humiliating was when some of them were taking pictures and filming me with their mobile phone. I heard the video is on the internet. I was rescued by the police, who were called by NGO Blety."

Jolie*, another sex worker, said: "I was asleep in my room when I felt a terrible pain on my foot. I woke up and realised residents had burst into my room and let a brick fall on my foot. They left me crying out in pain - and I was rescued by my friends."

The sex workers' belongings - which included fans, refrigerators, clothes, money and jewelry - were stolen by residents. They also threatened to come back another day to kill the women if they didn't leave the area.

According to Tetty, these attacks have increased sex workers' insecurity in the area of Adjamé. "On 27 January, several of our friends left Adjamé Bracodi not even knowing where to go," she said. "Since these events, about 200 of our friends are no longer able to work. And they face the challenge of finding accommodation and daily food."

Sex work in the Ivory Coast

Commercial sex has existed in the Ivory Coast for a long time. According to a report by Human Rights Watch in 2008, sex work itself (exchanging sex for money) is legal in the Ivory Coast but associated activities, such as soliciting, pandering or running brothels, are illegal. But ten years of political crisis and high unemployment has left many women unable to find work, so some have turned to commercial sex to support themselves.

Israel Ganhoué, project manager at Blety, said: "Sex workers are particularly vulnerable to coercion and rape. Social stigma and discrimination against sex workers create an environment that perpetuates a culture of violence.

"Their basic human rights to protection and redress are commonly disregarded; they are more often penalized and regarded as criminals. They are often targets of harassment, extortion and social exclusion from within their own networks of clients, pimps, regular partners and law enforcers. And this attack clearly illustrates this."

Sex work and HIV

According to a 2012 Demographic Health Survey, HIV prevalence among sex workers is 28.7 per cent. Ganhoué said: "It is necessary to provide a violence-free environment to sex workers as their clients are found among the general population. If they work clandestinely and no longer benefit from prevention services, I am afraid HIV prevalence among the general population will rise.

"Sex workers, their clients and regular partners are key populations at risk of HIV infection. Contextual factors such as stigma and poverty may further exacerbate sex workers' vulnerability to HIV."

NGO Blety has brought this issue to the attention of the police and legal authorities. The organisation filed a complaint to the district police station and is waiting for the perpetrators of the attacks to be arrested.

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