Sex workers in slums in Lekki talk to Sharon Osaji about the experiences that led them into prostitution in the high-brow area of Lagos State
Joy is a woman of easy virtue and she is not hiding it. She has operated at Kuramo, a slum in the heart of Jakande, Lekki, in the Eti-Osa Local Government Area of Lagos State, for about three years now.
On this Tuesday evening, when our correspondent visited, she was lively as she laughed hysterically after a colleague said something that sounded funny.
She wore tight-fitted high-waist flowery leggings and a white brassier, which seemed to be advertising her supple breasts and dark pointed nipples.
Her brown wig was stylishly packed backward. With her heavy make-up, she seductively stared at men passing by, batting her eyelashes at anyone who cared to look in her direction, while simultaneously packing and adjusting her breasts as if they could fall out.
She smacked her luscious lips and flashed a smile at a man, who appeared indecisive.
He passed by her and went for another lady.
One feature, however, stood Joy out: her two ears were not pierced. This reporter later understood she attended a popular Pentecostal church that preached against women wearing jewelry.
Aside from the obvious stretch marks on her stomach, Joy also had some legible marks around her back and arms.
The 38-year-old woman explained that they were from the beatings she got in her broken marriage.
While speaking to Saturday PUNCH, she said she got into prostitution to pull her family “out of the shackles of poverty.”
She said she had been on the job for five years and came to Kuramo just three years ago, where she joined other sex workers.
Although no one could categorically state when Kuramo became an abode for prostitutes, residents agreed the area had been popular for sexual pleasure for about 20 years.
The little huts, made up of wooden planks and nylons, are lined up along the road and men throng them, almost crawling into the huts to satisfy their libido.
Joy, a mother of two, said in her first six months of venturing into the trade, she helped her mother erect a structure in the Ikorodu area of Lagos.
Although she claimed she was looking for a way out of the “streets”, she vowed never to allow “stinking poverty” get a hold of her family again.
“The fact that I’m here does not mean I am a lazy woman. I am a strong woman. I have done businesses in the past, including farm work, but this stinking poverty must die,” she said while punching an imaginary enemy with a cackle.
She continued, “My father died early and left my mother to raise six children all by herself; I am the third child. Our older brother, the first child, then developed a sickness that drained all the money from my mother. We all could not go to school because any little money that came in went for his health. We never stayed in one house for more than one month; they were always chasing us away like a curse because of my brother’s sickness. There was no one to help us, whether uncles, brothers, or aunties, my whole family is poor. My mother was always in tears.”
Aside from her family troubles, Joy said she compounded the situation by entering a wrong marriage at 25.
She noted that her military husband was always beating her while also cheating on her.
She said, “I had two children for him and we used to live in the barracks; our house was a room and a parlor. Beating me was a normal thing to him; he would also bring women to the house even with our two children around. Many times, we would hear him having sex with them in the parlor while we were in the room. Sometimes, I would come out and meet them and he would continue like nobody was there. After I summoned the courage to leave him, I didn’t look back; I took my children to my mother.”
It was at this point she said a childhood friend, who had also experienced abuse in the marriage, introduced her to prostitution.
Joy said she vowed to give her mother a better life and provide money for the treatment of her sick brother.
“That stinking poverty was too much. We had suffered enough for a lifetime. I believe in God; I attend a Bible-believing church and that is why I don’t wear earrings. But when life pushes you to the wall, you have to push back; giving up is not an option for me.
“I am the only person who is into prostitution; I didn’t allow any of my sisters to join me in this; some are even married. The only regret I have is that I was not able to help my elder brother, who was sick. Before I could gather enough money for his treatment, he had died. I have done all I wanted to do, I will soon retire from this work,” she added.
Poverty, prostitution, AIDS
Poverty has been said to be a leading cause of prostitution, a trade that is thriving in different parts of the country.
According to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, Nigeria is home to an estimated 103,506 prostitutes.
The UNAIDS further stated that in sub-Saharan Africa about 60 percent of the world’s population is living with AIDS, even though they only make up 10 percent of the population.
The UN agency noted that in 2002, a total of 3.47 million people were living with AIDS in Nigeria.
Female sex workers have a 50 percent chance of contracting HIV/AIDS; most of the contractions derive from heterosexual intercourse.
In 2005, there were over 200,000 deaths from HIV/AIDS in the country.
Also, only a few months ago, the National Bureau of Statistics said 133 million people in Africa’s biggest economy are poor.
The bureau, in its Multidimensional Poverty Index report, said 133 million Nigerians are poor in health, education, living standards, and work and shocks.
From interactions with sex workers at Kuramo, each mentioned poverty as a major reason for venturing into the dangerous trade.
The pregnant woman turns sex worker
Love, a 35-year-old mother of an eight-month-old baby, has not known real love.
She said she started prostitution while pregnant with the child.
Love, who was married for 15 years, said she did not have a child with her ex-husband, which led to constant abuse and humiliation.
It was when she was thrown out by her husband that she discovered that she was pregnant.
According to her, she vowed not to return to the marriage for fear of losing the pregnancy.
“I did not want my husband to kill me and my child with beating. It took 15 years for me to summon the courage to leave an abusive marriage and I swore to do whatever it would take to survive.
“I entered Lagos with my pregnancy and frustration after I left Port Harcourt, where I lived. I had a big hair-dressing salon at Choba that was doing fine. I had three girls in my salon, who were calling me madam; but my husband took everything away, saying he made me.
“I left with nothing and had to start from scratch. I’m 35 years now and I cannot go back to my parents, who are poor and in the village. I had no other choice than to come to this place, so I could have money to eat,” she added.
Love said after she saved up some money, she rented an apartment at Sango-Ota, Ogun State.
She noted that she also started selling food by the roadside, so she could have enough money for herself and her unborn child.
However, because she underwent a caesarian section, the operation took up all her savings of about N300,000.
“Even after I gave birth, I tried to go back to the food business with the little I had, but the market was no longer moving; I was no longer selling. It’s a shameful thing for me to take that baby back to the village with my parents; I had to do this to survive and take care of my child.
“I moved back to Kuramo two months ago with my baby, who is about eight months old. I don’t come out every day because my baby is still small, but this is what is paying my bills presently.
“I didn’t go to school but I learned hairdressing and I’m also interested in selling foodstuffs. I just need to gather enough money to start the food business because if I decide to go for a salon, the capital to rent a shop and buy equipment will be too much for me,” she added.
Asked if her husband was not concerned about the child, Love claimed that he dared her to care for the baby alone.
“Or I should return if I’m ready, but I can’t go back. I have endured too much from him. Aside from the beating, he would bring women to the house and send me out of the room to go and sleep in the sitting room. He would insult me and tell me ‘It is women, not men that sleep in the room’. He would say he married a fellow man because I had no children. I can’t go back to that trauma,” she stated while fighting back tears.
Saturday PUNCH gathered that women in the shanty were paid N1,000 for a round of sex.
They also remit N500 daily to their Chief Security Officer, who provided them with security cover. This is in addition to the N200 they must pay weekly to the CSO as a ‘percentage’.
Speaking with our correspondent, the CSO, who identified himself only as Osama, said the women in Kuramo were “those who have lost hope in life, hardened their hearts and ready to do anything to survive.”
Our correspondent observed that the shanty hosted mostly elderly women, with the youngest sex worker being a 29-year-old lady.
Many of the sex workers were mothers with some parts of their bodies sagging from pregnancy and breastfeeding.
Saturday PUNCH gathered that the area comes alive mostly at night when the women start showing up from 7 pm.
While some live in crudely-built shelters, others rent them as “workshops” for the night.
The sex workers, who confided in our correspondent, said they earned more money on Fridays and Saturdays, as well as on public holidays.
They noted that weekly, they saved between N5,000 and N10,000.
However, if the “market does not pay well on some particular days or customers are few,” they would migrate to a nearby hood at Alpha Beach.
Alpha beach shanty
A seven-minute drive from Kuramo just by Alpha Beach is another slum where sex workers, mostly under 30 years of age, reside and operate from.
These younger ladies, who are mostly between the ages of 22 and 28, live in what they called cabins.
A cabin has 12 rooms; two to three ladies may live in a room.
Our correspondent, however, gathered that aside from sex workers, who dominated the cabins, other residents lived there.
Obianuju, popularly called Sugar, said she had been operating in the area for 10 years.
The 27-year-old told Saturday PUNCH unlike most of her colleagues, poverty was not the main reason she went into prostitution.
She said she was in the trade for “peace of mind” and she was happy she did not need to beg to fend for herself.
“When I finished secondary school in 2013, the pressure was much. I was living in Anambra and I started working at a fuel station to make money for myself. But they were paying me N8,000 monthly, which was nothing. I left the job after seven months and moved to Asaba, before finally coming to Lagos.
“For me, poverty was not the main thing that pushed me into this work. I have wealthy people in my village that could have helped me but they were too wicked and mean to me. No matter how much I begged those, my uncles and aunties, for help, it’s like they enjoyed seeing others below them suffer.
“I got tired of begging and decided to handle my life by myself and make money that will give me peace of mind without people raining insults on me in the name of helping me. This work does not pay me much, but I’m happy because I have peace of mind and freedom,” she stated.
She, however, lamented that her family members were only interested in taking money from her without bothering the source of it.
“This is 10 years now; nobody has ever asked what I’m doing to make this money; all they care about is that they are seeing money.
“What I have realized is that in this life, you’re on your own; nobody really cares, whether family or not,” she said.
Another sex worker, Chinyere, 28, who moved to Alpha Beach only last month, said she became pregnant as a 19-year-old secondary school student.
“That was in 2014. I was still young and in love; I didn’t really understand life and I didn’t know what to do. I was hiding the pregnancy from my mother and would pretend like I was fine until one of my mother’s friends told her to check me well.
“After a while, as expected, the pregnancy started to show and I took my mother and family members to the man who impregnated me.
“Unfortunately for me, he denied ever meeting me and blatantly rejected me. I was pained and I placed a curse on him. I had to move to my mother’s side, where I stayed till I gave birth before returning to Owerri.
“I started struggling to take care of my daughter. All my family members, including my brothers, deserted me; they even started insulting my innocent daughter, calling her a bastard.
“I would beg and plead with them to help us, but they turned their back on me. I had to find a way to survive on my own. When I came to Lagos, I started this business at Ajah before I moved here to Alpha Beach. I just moved here last month in March,” she stated.
Amaka, 22, was only four-day-old in prostitution when Saturday PUNCH visited the area.
The graduate of Economics from a university in Anambra State said she needed to raise money for her school clearance.
She said, “I came to Lagos for a job interview; I just arrived on Saturday, so I have spent just four days here. I’m a graduate of Economics from Anambra State, but I’m not done with my clearance and I need to raise money for it. I started ushering jobs and even started a tiger nut business, but with the state of the economy, the business has not been moving.
“I gathered the N65,000 I had made and decided to come to Lagos after my friend told me that there was a job that is available paying N40,000 monthly with accommodation.
“I paid N16,5000 for transport to Lagos and decided to come and stay with my friend here in Alpha Beach to save cost. I’ve spent only four days and bills are coming in every day; my friend is also paying her rent of N2,000 daily and feeding me.
“So, while waiting for the call from the interview, she told me this was the work she was doing and that I had to start fending for myself because she could not be housing me while I contributed nothing. I got my first customer yesterday (Tuesday) and I’m trying to save up to get a place for myself.”
Findings by our correspondent revealed that the girls are paid N5,000 for a round of sex and N15,000 for overnight service.
It was also revealed that the girls are sometimes chartered out by ‘big men’ for external service for people who would rather not meet them in the slum.
When asked the type of men that visited the area, Sugar said, “Big men, small boys, married men, divorcees, some men that their wives have used pressure to send from the house, they all come here.
“Personally, I prefer small boys because the ones that have money, their demands are usually too much. In a week, I make between N10,000 and N30,000; it depends on how business is. This place is hard; we are just trying to survive,” she added.
International Women Society, Lagos react
Meanwhile, less than 10 minute’s walk from Kuramo is a center for the International Women’s Society, just along the Lekki-Epe Expressway by Jakande.
The IWS is a non-governmental organization founded for the advancement of women of all races, and to encourage and develop the common interests of female folk.
Surprisingly, places like Kuramo exist very close to the IWS, which has had its Jakande location for 24 years.
Our correspondent, who visited the IWS center, spoke with a senior official, who claimed that the society had done a lot for the community.
While speaking on condition of anonymity, the official said, “Over the years, a little less than 2,500 people have passed through the center. A lot of times, we might have financial setbacks and because of that, we might not be able to touch certain areas. But I can assure you that a lot of the people from the Jakande environment, including widows and youths, have benefitted from our training over the years.
“However, some of these people are not trying to improve themselves. A couple of times, we have gone to these places to enlighten the people and ask them to visit the center at any time to get trained so they can acquire the necessary skills and be responsible citizens.
“I think some of these sex workers are carried away by the euphoria of the moment and are not really willing to be empowered. Quick money is always like a sniff of cocaine and you just get addicted, so some of them are not actually looking at the future to empower themselves and get out from such a profession.”
According to the official, the center offers training courses in catering and event management, sewing and fashion design, beauty courses that involve hairdressing and salon services, adult literacy for those who can’t read and write, and computer-related courses.
She further noted that although the center had standard facilities and enough room available, funding remained a challenge.
The Lagos State Commissioner for Women Affairs, Bolaji Dada, when contacted by our correspondent, promised to take immediate action on the matter.
She said although she had never heard of the shanties, she was sure the ministry’s “foot soldiers” would be aware.
Dada promised that social workers and domestic violence experts would visit the shanties to engage the sex workers in ways the ministry could support them and take them out of the streets.
She said, “We will mobilize our social workers and domestic violence teams to visit the areas and interact with these girls so that we can know the best way to empower and help them.
“On many occasions, the challenges we have with sex workers are that many of them are actually not ready to leave the streets and don’t take our empowerment programs seriously when we reach out to them. It’s one thing for the government to reach out, it’s another thing for these people to receive the help presented to them.
“But we will visit the area immediately. We have many programs that they can learn from that will enable them to earn a living in a responsible way. I really hope we will be able to help.”
Prostitution, a social malaise
A professor of Sociology at Ahmadu Bello University, John Gyong, said prostitution was a social problem and tackling the menace should go beyond taking sex workers off the streets to equipping them with skills and providing accommodation.
He noted that the government and non-governmental organizations could also sponsor them to schools for a more effective, long-term impact.
Gyong lamented that high rates of divorce and domestic violence were sending many women to the streets.
He said, “It brings down society because we have a set of people who are providing what is supposed to be cherished as a public commodity in order to earn a living. They are not doing it because they enjoy it, they do it to make ends meet.
“The first thing to do is to sensitize them to the dangers of the profession, especially health-wise. But if things are not put in place to ensure lasting solutions and complete rehabilitation, they will only end up back on the streets.
“It is, however, important that they are not forced from the streets but they volunteer willingly. That way, they are more serious and will be more submissive to authority and would calm down to learn.
“Education will also go a long way to enlighten them and give them a new perspective on life. Once they are educated and their businesses are growing, others would start looking up to them and see a reason to leave. They will then become role models.”
Also, a psychologist, Anthonia Abu, who practices at the Pinnacle Medical Serves, said the women needed love to enable them to fully heal from such past experiences and move on with their lives.
She said constant counseling would build up their confidence, especially once they could find a trustworthy mental health expert.
“What sex workers are most afraid of is the stigmatization that comes with the profession, so it makes it difficult for them to seek help.
“But once you can see through that barrier and come down to their level and when they are duly empowered, physically, financially, and mentally, you see that most of them are very industrious people. They will begin to have confidence in themselves and value themselves more,” she added.red