Risking Disease Infection and Exploitation –The Heart-wrenching Stories of Women Forced into Prostitution by Poverty

By Amie Sanneh

It is a foggy night punctuated by a chilly weather. Inside is lit up by a revolving bright light which produces a magnificent daylight-like effect, a typical local gig reverberates in the background.

Sitting on a stool with legs crossed, Isatou Mbenge –not her real name –dons a raunchy mini skirt barely covering her navel. Wearing high heels for shoes, the fair complexioned 28-year-old puffs a cigarette and is immersed in her own woes.

A hoard of other young ladies clad in skimpy dresses stand on the opposite end seductively posing to a male client, urging him to pick whoever catches his fancy.

Most of these sex workers have virtually similar sorry stories. The majority opt to make a living out of the age-old profession as a way of escaping the clutches of poverty in a society where promiscuity is condemned.

Three out of four, I have noticed, are forced to live a promiscuous life to make ends meet with a family to tend to when they retire to their homes at dawn.

Some are driven to walk this path having grown sick of being severely molested and groped by close relatives.

Words have it that modestly clad women risk getting stabbed, bottled or knifed when they enter brothels and for that, one has to be raunchily clad and disguise as one of them to avoid suspicion

Isatou wept uncontrollably as she took me through the journey lane of how she became one of the call-girls.

The 28-year-old, born in Sierra Leone, was entrusted to an uncle in The Gambia by her parents as a guardian. She was to complete her schooling under his tutelage. But the man given to her as a guide to life metamorphosed her into a sex object at a young age. This became the turning point and what ensued later was more a circle of abuse and sexual molestation. It reached a point that what was to become an uncle-niece relationship transformed into liaison of sex for favours.

“I left my country to come and stay with him and for him to take care of me and see me through school but at the end of the day, things turned out differently and I became a sex object to my ‘guardian angel’,” she says through sobs as perspiration ran down her face. Mbenge is often left traumatized and embarrassed at the thought of her Uncle, a past, she says, that still haunts her.

Fed up of the continuous ill-treatment meted out to her, Isatou took the bull by the horns to vacate her Uncle’s house to fend for herself, leading her to what she does today.

Now hawking her body to be self-reliant, Isatou doesn’t feel she’s worth much.

“When I was staying with my uncle, whenever I needed something or ask him for a favour whether it is in cash or kind, before giving it to me I have to sleep with him first before he gives or does anything for me.

“This is not something that I enjoyed. I am doing it because I am now used to it and I have to take care of my family back home (in Sierra Leone).

“At 25, I decided to leave the house and started living on my own. At least I am independent and I am now supporting my family back home. What I am doing right now is better than what I was going through when I was staying with my uncle.”

Re-adjusting on her leaned tool, Mbenge is convinced she can’t be in a serious relationship not to talk of being in matrimony.

“I don’t enjoy it. I do it because I am used to it and my mum has high hopes on me and I do not want to disappoint her.

“With my story, nobody will like to settle down with me which I wish will happen someday but I doubt it.”

Sex-workers could garner up to 1,500 dollars per shift according to a recent study -a sum which is a paltry return compared to what those in Gambia earn.

Like in any profession, hiccups are abound. In the case of prostitution, risks are there for the taking and sex-workers aren’t oblivious of its consequences.

Of major problem is the near high tendency of contacting various diseases including STDs (sexually Transmitted Diseases).

The issue of being short-changed by clients and, in much rare but possibly cases, being used and dumped without pay, is another hiccup dogging prostitution.

There is also the biting issue of men’s refusal to use protection which Isatou says runs counter to agreed rules of the trade.

“Some men do not want to use condom which is against our rules because we do not know how many and what type of women they have been sleeping with.

“We do not want to be infected with diseases or get pregnant then it will defeat the purpose of working.

“Sometimes we quarrel or fight with our customers because at times you meet people who do not want to pay for our services and what they want is to have fun with us and go their way.

“Sometimes they manage to escape and in other cases they end up paying less than what was agreed upon.”

The 28-year-old says the last statement with a sense of finality that belies the severe risk involved with prostitution.

Isatou’s troubled beginnings are similar to a second sex-worker I spoke to whom I will prefer to call Mariama because she, like the first, doesn’t want her name mentioned.

Mariama, a 30-year-old, took up sex-working after growing fed up of being thrown innuendoes by her mother for not taking up family responsibilities as a first-born.

“I am into this to make a living because I am tired of my mother having to be insulting or embarrassing me every time she needs something and cannot get it due to poverty.

“I do not have choice because I was unable to get a job so I decided to venture into this to save myself from my mother’s continuous harassment in the presence of others.”

A Gambian-born, Mariama’s mother hasn’t the slightest clue of her daughter’s job type.

Asked how much she makes, she replied: ‘I cannot tell you what I earn in a day, week or month. The only thing I can say is that I am making a living and my family is happy which is a very important thing to me. At least I have freed myself from having to quarrel with my mum everyday.’

Where it concerns protection, the 30-year-old has similar fears as Isatou.

“Sometimes men do not like protection and that is why we are sometimes on contraceptive pills. I only agree to it if I have a dry night but that is not to our advantage as we will be exposed to infectious diseases.”

“I am not happy being in this trade but I do not have a choice. What I would have preferred is to get married and settle down but right now which man would like to marry me, so the only choice I have is to stay in this.”

For a third sex-worker Julian, the need for a father-figure to assume responsibility, in a family of six, was what prompted her decision to join the call-girls’ crew.

“As the eldest born, they (my siblings) look up to me. My father died when I was eleven. I am from a family of six and since my father died, my mother who does not have any source of income has been struggling for the family.”

Julian actually dropped out of school in a bid to assist her aging mother.

“She needed someone to be assisting her and as the eldest, I have to be the one to stay back and help her at home to raise the family.”

Narrating her story in tears, the 30-year-old says, she initially began as a petty trader after leaving school but chose prostitution upon massive decline of her business.

“That is how we were struggling to survive and my mother was finding it difficult to take care of my siblings especially when it comes to their educational needs.

“I reached a point when I decided that enough is enough and I cannot continue to sit back and watch my mother suffer just for our own sake.”

For Julian, it never occurred to her she could end up on this and without her mother’s knowledge.

“The only thing she (her mother) feels is that I have a good job and I am taking care of the family.”

She stated that if her mother knows the type of job she is into, she will die of heart attack. “This job is really embarrassing, that is why we always avoid people we know to see us or know what we are into and that is why it is mostly done in the night.”

Describing her line of job as hectic, Julian is at least contended she’s able to cater for the education of her younger ones, provide food for the family and rent a big apartment.

“I have been in the business for five years now. What I receive in a day depends on what I can carry. Sometimes, I go home with two to three thousand dalasi,” she reveals.

Refusal to pay up, use protection or being shortchanged by clients are one of the hitches she needs to put up with.

‘You will agree with someone on a price and he knows that he does not really have that amount but he will not tell you what he can pay which sometimes leads to bitter argument and fights. I am not ready to have sex with any man who does not want to use condom,’

When the government under previous leadership of Yahya Jammeh launched a crackdown, raiding Guest Houses and rounding up sex-workers, it provoked much reaction.

An initiative was later introduced eleven years ago, demanding sex-workers be registered and licensed but that too was later met with pockets of resistance.

The country’s erstwhile president has shown renewed enthusiasm over the years to flush out decadence – prostitution included – in his realization to attain an Islamic Gambia. But the drive has always fallen short of tackling the root cause prompting vulnerable women to take to prostitution which comes with its massive exploitation and the risk of stigmatization from a society highly prohibitive of the trade.

It will be business as usual for Isatou, Mariama and Julian on Monday – a humdrum affair of attending to amorous attentions of men –into a job they so despise but yet must do for a livelihood with a much bleak future.