Cameroon: IDP sex workers & access to HIV prevention kits, a tale of reproach, survival.
It is almost sunset in "Elf", a neighborhood in Douala, the economic hub of Cameroon. Nana Gwendoline alias Bibish watches with rapt attention as a social worker demonstrates on a carved female reproductive organ how the female condom is fixed on the vagina before sexual intercourse.
Nana 26, had been displaced by the Anglophone crisis from her native Kombone village in the restive South West Region to Douala, where she has taken on sex work as a means of survival.
She says it was the first time she was getting firsthand knowledge on how to properly use a female condom to protect herself from HIV and other transmittals. She was pleased by the knowledge the social workers have shown her.
"Some clients will prefer the round of sex unprotected, some may even pierce their condom which is not good, but if I could discretely wear the female condom without anyone knowing, it keeps me more save from harm, besides, some men prefer it that way because it gives them the feeling direct penetration," she said.
In Cameroon, sex work has remained illegal and even sanctionable as per the Penal Code. Considered to be the earliest trade on earth, the activity has continuously to sparked several debates in relation to human rights violations. Yet survival remains a major factor for sex workers who had been displaced by crisis.
Since Cameroon’s English-speaking region of North West and South West collapsed into an armed separatist conflict in 2017, young girls and women displaced by the conflict, trapped with poverty, increasingly desperate to find money, shelter in their “new homes” have taken up on the option to trade sex for Money even so, at the detriment of their moral upbringing and the mockery of society
According to UNAIDS there are no fewer than 112,000 sex workers in the country. Amongst the over 400,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Douala, who have fled in recent years to escape violence from the Boko Haram crisis and the Anglophone crisis, it however, remains difficult to estimate the number of sex workers because they are not documents.
But anecdotal evidence reveals that, they have increased especially in sex hot zones like the Elf neighbourhood.
The impact of sex work is disproportionate since most women, girls involved are in a sort of "subsistence sex" with the risk of exposure to violence and HIV/AIDS and other transmittals. The level of unwanted pregnancies have also increased of recent amongst IDP host communities
Sex workers are subjected to face all kind of violence but most prominently, sexual, emotional and physical and psychological violence are alarming. Health enforcement officers were found by research to increase sex workers vulnerability to violence.
The routine police patrol in sex hot zones often leads to the arrest of many indiscriminately. “Once we are arrested, we are tasks to pay 25,000 FCFA before release. They will even ask us to clean the toilets, with no light it is not a good situation," Nana said
During an advocacy campaign with NGO workers from Horizon Femme, the Regional Coordinator for the HIV Prevention Centre, Cyril Elung, said these routine arrests are to be discouraged because it disrupts treatment for those affected.
Surviving the context
The illegality of the sex work in the country, has not limited the activity. Though sex workers face health challenges including high risk of HIV infections, reproach, discrimination, fear, arrest, yet they survive.
Majority now use the internet to escape from harassments. "I joined prostitution through the internet, I was posting pictures on various online platforms to attract clients, we hookup and they pay for my services. This way I don't have to face problems from violent gangsters or the police," one of them said
Charles Eric, Prevention Officer at Douala-based NGO, Horizons Femme, that donates HIV protection kits, lubricants to sex workers, said the girls have increasingly gained experience in protection themselves from diseases.
He believes that, making protective kits readily accessible to sex workers will go a long way to reduce the spread of HIV in communities
“We have the chance to receive these donations from USAIDS, every now and then, we have routine campaigns where we do rapid test for free and donate condoms for free, this we know is important to curb the spread of diseases," he said.
Safety For sex workers
In October 2022, the team leader, Simone Domine, carried out a campaign with the aim to advocate for and engage law enforcement officers in the fight against violence on sex workers. "We are not saying that the trade should legalized, what we want is for the state to help us eradicate violence and allow our sisters work in a safe environment, they are an integral part of our society," Domine said.
This article was produced with the help of SisterSpeaks 237-SRHR Reporting