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Monday, April 22, 2024

The plight of commercial sex workers in Sierra Leone

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The plight of commercial sex workers in Sierra Leone


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The 25 Years- old flaunts her fine figure in her tight miniskirt and tummy exposing half top.  Kate is from the Northern part of the country, which has most of the country’s population standing at 2,502,805. Ironically also, this is the part of the country with the highest rate of illiteracy though it is closer to the country’s capital, Freetown.

Like Kate, there are also so many other young ladies like her in the same “trade” and from the same part of the country whom Politico spoke with.

Rugiatu Koroma is a commercial sex worker but has recently started to work as a prostitute after two years. She explained that she had stopped the trade in November 2014 when the Ebola outbreak was ravaging the country’s population and killing hundreds of people like a deadly monster.

She had been to prison once in 2013, after she was arrested for loitering around Charlottes Street in the Western Area in Freetown but that she said: “will not stop me to be a prostitute.”

“I have pleasure working as a commercial sex worker, it’s a profession I have chosen and nothing will stop me from doing it,” she said. Koroma revealed that it is the trade that has made her a land owner and a business woman respectively, an achievement which she is boastful about.

Chairlady of the commercial sex workers at Aberdeen, Baby Kay, exposed challenges they are facing with “police harassment and lack of legal representation in courts. I don’t know why they keep harassing us, we are not criminals. We decided to choose this as trade and that is far better than to being criminals”.

According to her, even the police sometimes demand sex from them upon their arrests for them to be freed.  In the midst of their challenges however, Baby Kay said they will not refrain from doing their job. “We will go to other places, away from police harassment” she imagined.

“The government is not able to provide job for us all, what we do is a trade and it is a means of employing ourselves as we struggle to survive,” she told Politico.

Sex work is not a privilege

However, Police media and Website Officer, Assistant Inspector General, Brima Kamara said he cannot confirm the allegations against his officers to be true “Our responsibility is to protect lives and properties not to harass people,” he claimed.

“They could be commercial sex workers but when we arrest them, we do so because they commit particular offences,” he revealed, adding that the police could arrest a commercial sex worker if she is found loitering in areas which they are not supposed to be at a particular time of the night citing Aberdeen beach as an example.

 “You could call it commercial sex working but the fact remains that if you are arrested for loitering it is loitering” the police Media Relations officer explained.

He also noted that the women sometimes disturb the operations of the police by hanging around criminals and also passing on information that they are not supposed to pass on.

“Sometimes we warn them to leave specific locations around the beach but they insist on being there, we then arrest them for loitering, regardless of the fact that they smoke Cannabis Sativa and quarrel among themselves in public thus creating public nuisance and we end up arresting the under the Public Order Act,” AIG Kamara informed us.

There is no specific section in the country’s  1991 Constitution prohibiting commercial sex tradetherefore Many commercial sex workers strongly believes that their “trade” is legal.

Nonetheless Cap 37 section 30 of the Laws of Sierra Leone 1960 states clearly that “Every Commercial prostitute or night worker loitering or being in thoroughfare or public place, for the purpose of prostitution or solicitation, to the annoyance of the inhabitant or passengers shall be liable on conviction to a fine, not exceeding 40 chilling for every such offence.“ 

Also section 14 of the Sexual Offence Act of 2012, though not specifically clear about commercial sex workers raises eyebrows on the trade in the country. The Act states that “a person who intentionally exposes his or her genitals with the intention of letting someone other than a consenting person see them” as commercial sex workers display whiles waiting for a catch,” that individual will commit the offence of indecent exposure and is liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding Le10, 000,000 or to a term of imprisonment not exceeding three years.”

Barrister at Law and Lecturer at the University of Sierra Leone, Joseph Kapuwa, argues that the fact that commercial sex workers are always being arrested, detained and jailed shows that their trade is not recognized in the country, adding that he, as a legal officer, is not aware of any specific provision requiring or legalizing commercial sex in Sierra Leone.

“As a trade I am not aware of any law specifically proving for commercial sex in the country. However, I am aware that in the interest of public morality there are provision of the law that prohibits  what you now refer to as commercial sex” he said.

Legal representation

Baby Kay lamented that some of her members have served jail sentence at the Pademba Road Correctional Centre because they lacked legal representation in court, a situation which she wants government to address.

Barrister Joseph Kapuwa,informed Politico that there are laws protecting the fundamental human rights to opinion, movement, fair trial, protection from arbitrary arrest and other inhuman treatment of all Sierra Leoneans including those indulge in the sex“trade”.

He highlights that for the fact that they are being arrested and sentenced to prisons means they have no right to practice such a trade in the country

Commenting on the legality of commercial sex workers being provided with a lawyer to represent them in court, he said they have the right to legal representations but that they have to take care of legal fees themselves because “it is not the duty of the state to provide them with legal representations in court. Government is not bound to provide legal representation for commercial sex workers.”

Lack of legal representation, and delay in trials, have mainly resulted in the overcrowding of prisons across the country among other things. Asituation whichnon-governmental organizations and other pressure groups like; AdvocAid, Prison Watch, the Legal Aid Board and the Centre for Accountability and Rule of Law (CARL) have been advocating for government and other development partners to address for years.

Julie Mariama Sesay is the programs Manager for AdvocAid, a nongovernmental organization that have been providing holistic access to justice for woman and girls that come in conflict with the law.

She adds that, one of the crimes that AdvoAid provides legal representation for most times is loitering and commercial sex workers are mostly victims of such crime considering the nature of their job.

“We know their trade is illegal, and they are regularly arrested by the Sierra Leone Police because they work all night, so we follow their cases in Police Station and try to mediate and if they are taken to court we give the representation,” she narrated.

At the moment, she said, organization is providing representation for a commercial sex worker that was charged to court as a result of a “private criminal sermon,” made by the Police constable in court, whom the accused claimed was harassing her for sex.

She informed us that the accused has appeared twice in court and the matter has been adjourned at the magistrate Court in Freetown.  She promised that AdvoAid will continue to provide the commercial sex worker with legal support to ensure justice prevails. 

Mambu Feika is the Executive Director at Prison Watch, a non-governmental organization that has also been working to addressing issues affecting juvenile justice and other vulnerable people that come in conflict with the law.

He cannot give a specific example of a case that his organization has dealt with in court that has to do with a commercial sex, but notes however that they have provided support for vulnerable people thatlacks a legal representation in court so as to ensure justice and to alsodrasticallyreduce the number of prisoners in both the Male and Female Correctional Centers.

Prior to now, Feika informed with support from partners they have been able to release over two hundred prisoners on bail from five prisons in Bo, Kenema, Makeni, and Porto Loko and in the Western Urban Area through this scheme with funds from the United Nations Development Pogramme (UNDP).

 “… with our intervention, we have been able to release about two hundred prisoners on bail, making the numbers drop significantly from over 1,500 prisoners to 1,300 prisoners in five prisons across the country,“ he explains to Politico.

As an organization, he says, they had observed over the years that it is during the raining season that more people are imprisoned for committing criminal offences and majority of these are youths within the ages of 15 and 35years.

He recommends that the government should initiate new policies that would enable it to provide more jobs to engage the minds of youths.

Meanwhile, as the government is now reviewing its 1991 Constitution, many citizens anticipates a law in the new constitution that criminalizes the trade for the sake of public safety and morality, while commercial sex workers are advocating that they are given the right in the new constitution to practice their trade peacefully without harassment from the Sierra Leone Police.

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