As dusk fell one evening in March 2020, Giftie Ade Kumbi, alias Vanessa, sat in a bar in Cameroon’s capital city of Yaoundé. The 24-year-old sex worker was searching for a customer despite a 6pm curfew on the operation of bars, restaurants and entertainment spots because of the pandemic.
The bar was quiet and the doors partially closed. “I was hoping to make at least 5 000 francs CFA [about R130] that day. But to my great dismay, five policemen swooped on me. One ordered me to get up and go climb on their patrol pickup truck which was parked outside,” Vanessa said.
She was making a move to obey the order when the officers saw she had an impairment on her right hand. They “pitied me and asked me to go”. Vanessa, who has previously experienced harassment – including from her boyfriend who stole her R12 000 life savings – was “lucky” that day. There are no fewer than 112 580 female sex workers in Cameroon, according to a 2019 estimate, but they are marginalised, criminalised and excluded from social protection.
Sex workers in the central African nation were already a soft target for harassment before the outbreak of Covid-19. Now, the pandemic has further entrenched their fragility. Lockdown regulations restricted the operation of bars, nightclubs and pubs, causing them to lose income, and in some cases even their home.
The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/Aids and the Global Network of Sex Work Projects called on governments in April 2020 not to leave sex workers behind in their Covid-19 response as they were facing “particular hardships”. But the government of President Paul Biya, who has ruled Cameroon with an iron fist for close to 40 years, was not well disposed to the idea.
Harassed and bribed
The penal code of Cameroon criminalises all aspects of sex work, including “prostitution” and “solicitation”. Those found guilty could be jailed for up to five years and fined more than R13 000. Covid-19 regulations only make matters worse. With no social or financial support, sex workers are obliged to break lockdown rules to make ends meet.
National statistics on the abuses against sex workers in Cameroon are not available. But Horizons Femmes, a Yaoundé-based non-governmental organisation that works towards the socioeconomic empowerment of women, particularly in the cities of Yaoundé, Douala and Bafoussam, recorded 336 cases of gender-based violence between October 2020 and September 2021. The previous year, it registered 234 cases. The abuses included sexual, physical, emotional (insults and blackmail) and economic violence.
The perpetrators were law enforcement officers, unsatisfied clients, brothel owners and sex workers’ bodyguards, said Cedric Noumbissie, communication officer for Horizons Femmes.
Vanessa said the gendarmerie, a paramilitary force, had arrested her at least three times, threatening to lock her up unless she paid a bribe. “The last time, they put me into their van and drove to the station. I had to call my friend who came and ‘bailed’ me with the sum of 15 000 francs CFA,” she said.
In the TKC neighbourhood of Yaoundé, where many low-income sex workers live and work, police and gendarmerie officers on routine patrol intimidate them into handing over money. The sex workers take turns to settle with these officers.
One of the sex workers, Joan, said a police officer once coerced her into sex in place of cash when it was her turn to pay. “It was a rough day for me and I didn’t have any money to give them. I begged them to pass the next day but one officer insisted I must pay in kind if I had no cash, or be arrested,” she said.
The General Delegation for National Security, which controls the police, was not available for comment at the time of publication, but the officer in charge of the police has previously called on the population to report officers who solicit bribes.
Sex workers often cover up abuses because reporting them to law enforcement means being charged with “prostitution”. Human rights advocate Gbaka Ernest Acho said Cameroonian society implicitly accepts sex work, yet local laws make it illegal, allowing those in positions of power to harass workers.
“I have hardly seen cases of ‘prostitution’ or suspects of ‘prostitution’ brought to court. Such cases have been very rare. Yet we see [police officers] out there to carry out the arrests but the cases do not come to court. This gives us the impression that the intention is usually not for prosecution but for some other reasons – maybe to get some financial gains from the suspects,” Acho said.
The human rights advocate said that when a suspected sex worker is arrested and not taken to court, it is pure harassment. Due process involves sending them to court with enough evidence for prosecution.
“If the activity [sex work] is regulated, it will protect their rights and will benefit the society in terms of taxes.”
Advocating for change
The International Labour Organization recognises sex work as a form of informal labour, with all the related workers’ rights.
In a joint stakeholder submission as part of the universal periodic review of the human rights situation in Cameroon, the African Sex Workers Alliance and other organisations recommended the need for Cameroon to eliminate any form of discrimination and violence against women, and to implement awareness-raising campaigns. This recommendation implies allowing women autonomy over their bodies, including to choose sex work as a profession.
Cameroon accepted most of the recommendations in the 2018 review. But in policy and practice, it has made little or no effort, even as the fourth review cycle approaches next year.
Amid the reluctance and resistance to change, concerned organisations such as Horizons Femmes try to make a difference. It runs a drop-in facility, the Life Centre, which helps sex workers who are victims of abuse.
Pasma Rosalie Ngoumjouen, the centre’s manager and advocacy officer, said it has engaged sex workers as peer educators. “We have built confidence between us and the sex workers as we use peer educators. Our Life Centre is a convivial space dedicated to sex work. It is like their home and they feel free to come here at any time,” she said.
Horizons Femmes provides sex workers with lubricants and condoms. It also carries out rapid HIV tests and others for sexually transmitted diseases, and in cases where a patient tests positive, it follows up. In addition, Horizons Femmes advocates to change perceptions at the level of lawmakers and law enforcement officers.
Safety and anonymity online
Meanwhile, with a smartphone and an internet connection, sex workers are taking matters into their own hands to guarantee their survival. Through social media – WhatsApp and Facebook in particular – they scout for clients online, from the comfort of their homes. The majority operate in groups to meet client specifications.
Prospective clients have to pay upfront electronically, using MTN MoMo or Orange Money, in order to register online. They then choose the services they want. If a face-to-face meeting is required, arrangements are made for meetups in local hotels.
Sally, a sex worker who finds her clients online, said the new method is revolutionary. They no longer have to stand by the roadside. “This saves us from harassment and it is dignifying.” The payment is always better, said Sally, who charges R660 for all-night sex.
In a society in which sex work attracts stigma, the system seems to hold promise as the identity of those who employ sex workers remains discreet. Real names are not required during registration and payment can be made through mobile money agents.
One Facebook group in which sex workers and clients meet, Cameroun Piments 237, already has more than 28 000 members. As more people access the internet through smartphones, the future of sex work in Cameroon may shift to the digital, potentially changing the way workers operate and how vulnerable they are to unscrupulous officers.