FeaturesGender & SGBV

Women Fleeing Conflict In Cameroon Being Tricked Into Sex Work

A good number of internally displaced girls and women from crisis-hit regions of Cameroon are increasingly being tricked into sex work by men working in popular bus parks in the towns they are fleeing to. There, they face violence and crackdowns.

In May 2018, Gisela, 28, left her home in Mbaingo in Cameroon’s northwestern region to a town she thought could keep her safe. 

Her decision to move to Douala, the economic capital, came following constant confrontations between military and separatist fighters in her village. It became clear that the village was no longer safe for her, and so she fled with her two sons.

Separatist fighters have been battling the military for over six years in an attempt to seize independence over the two English-speaking regions of Cameroon. These confrontations have led to the displacement of over 700,000 persons and  70000 refugees, the UN Agency For Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA says.

Before she fled her village, Gisela was a hairdresser. She shared a one-room space alongside a barber. Due to the fighting, she abandoned her business and left the village.  She narrates that her journey was more difficult because she wasn’t prepared and had less than $30 with her after she had paid her transport fare. One of her friends had convinced her to come over to Douala, where they could jointly run a hawking business. Given the insecurity in her village, it seemed reasonable advice.

“I wanted to stay alive, so I ran away with my children. There were many people leaving the village that same day. We trekked for over four hours to get to Bamenda. We took a bus and left for Douala. Actually, I didn’t expect what happened when I got here,” explained Gisela.

She further explained that her friend received her from the park in Douala, but warned she didn’t have enough space to host them. She rather proposed that Gisela should rent a room for herself and the kids. Gisela was told one of the park workers could help her get settled in Douala, so she went to him for help. 

“He told me the place was the cheapest, about $4USD dollars per night. He assured me it was very safe and that my friend also had a room around the same spot.”

She was taken to a place where she saw women as young as she was flirting with men. 

“It was at that moment I knew I was in a camp and my friend was a sex worker,” she said.

The $30 USD she had left after paying her transport fare could not sustain her for two weeks. On the 8th day, her friend and the man who accompanied her to the brothel started introducing her to ‘customers’. 

“At first I told her I was not interested. But I had to feed myself and the children and even rent a better place. So I decided to get into it. I sometimes make $2USD  to $40 USD a day depending on the person or period.”

Gisela said after she was introduced to the trade, she observed that five other internally displaced girls and women like her later joined during the same period in 2019. 

“Anytime they discover you are new and you seem frustrated, they bring you here and slowly you join the trade.

“It is like a charm. You start by thinking you cannot join but they talk you into it. You even say you will leave after some days but you keep doing it.  Some girls come and try to do other things but they end up doing this,” she says. 

The violence in the space

Sex workers in Cameroon go through various acts of violence at the hands of their clients and recruiters and Gisela was not exempted. She revealed she was once forced to have unprotected sex with one of her customers.

“There are times when some are good to you. But some others are rough and maltreat you. Last year a married man forced me to have unprotected sex. He was so angry when I refused the first time. I was so scared that I did,” laments Gisela.

study published by the National Library of Medicine titled “Gender-based violence against female sex workers in Cameroon: prevalence and associations with sexual HIV risk and access to health services and justice” shows over 60 per cent of female sex workers experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. 

The report further stated the attacks were associated with inconsistent condom use with clients, being offered more money for condomless sex, and difficulty suggesting condoms with non-paying partners amongst others. 

Unlike other camps where the proprietor of a brothel dictates who they should sleep with and how much they should collect, Gisela says it is more independent where she works although they pay allegiance to the park workers.

“If you don’t give back to them, you will be sidelined, ” she noted. 

A report exposing joints hosting these sex workers in 2019 angered proprietors of these popular joints, making them aggressive towards journalists and activists. 

An activist, Henrietta Thatcher revealed she was almost beaten up by one of the bar owners after they discovered she was trying to convince some girls to leave the trade. 

Crackdown on the spaces

The government of Cameroon has recently embarked on a war against sex workers, a trade they have tolerated all these past years. Last month, they raided and sealed popular spots where sex workers operate. The Divisional Officer of Yaoundé VI, Joseph Alain Etoundi on June 29, sealed all bars, inns, motels, and game houses in neighbourhoods where sex workers operate. A few days later, another government official made the same decision in Douala.

The Cameroonian Penal Code criminalises sex work through Article 343. 

 “Any person of either sex who habitually engages, for compensation, in sexual acts with others, shall be punished with imprisonment for six months to five years and a fine of 20.000 (US$ 34.24) to 500.000 (US$ 856.11) francs”, it states. This however doesn’t stop the trade from growing in the country’s economic capital. 

Media reports indicate the number of places where sex workers operate has increased since the crisis started in the English-speaking regions of the country. 

Following a study conducted by the non-profit organisation, LODGE AN IDP in communities hosting internally displaced persons in the Littoral and West regions, respondents said most of their children had gone into prostitution. The study suggests that humanitarian assistance should reach those really in great need, so as to prevent girls and boys from diving into criminal activities.

Gisela says although she doesn’t like the trade, it is too late for her to give up because she is already part of a network and has found family there. 

“I can’t, I can’t, this is not something you leave just like that. There’s no guarantee everything will be fine,” she said. She also said some of the girls who left the trade returned months later due to discrimination and abuse they faced from their community.  

Some human rights and gender activists have been working with girls and women caught up in this situation so as to ease their readmission into society.  

The non-governmental organisation, Horizon Femmes, is currently running a project to help displaced women in three regions of Cameroon. They have been paying visits to sex workers in Douala, educating them on how to avoid sexually transmissible diseases and HIV/AIDs, as well as providing them with preservatives. In some cases, they talk these girls out of the profession, advise them on possible opportunities away from the trade, and facilitate their reintegration into society. 

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