Recently, several anti-trafficking non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Nigeria have called on the government to criminalise sex work. In the forefront of this advocacy are organisations like Coalition for the Abolition of Prostitution, Associazione Iroko Onlus and The Gloria Steinem Equality Fund to End Sex Trafficking, who urged lawmakers to legislate laws to end the buying and selling of sex. The impetus for this call, according to the agencies, stemmed from their understanding of sex work as an enterprise that disposed young girls and women towards trafficking networks. While there are indeed trafficked or smuggled Nigerian women within Africa (held on bonded servitude in Mali, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire and Libya) and Europe (Italy, Belgium, Spain and France), the assumption that criminalising sex work will forestall trafficking is far from persuasive. What it achieves, instead, is to reinforce the existing stigma of sex work as a socially irresponsible work, which tends to enable abuse of sex workers by state and public actors.
Currently, there is no law that bans sex work in Nigeria, even though prostitutes can sometimes be at the receiving end of arbitrary arrest and assault from the Nigerian Police officials. Given the personal safety concerns which sex workers are forced to confront in the line of their work, wouldn’t criminalisation expose them to additional layers of harm? My aim here is to make sense of the competing human rights claims arising from this call for criminalisation of sex work. On the one hand exists the argument or idea that criminalising sex work will forestall trafficking, and on the other hand are potential human rights violations that are likely to come into play in the course of enforcing such a ban. If countries such as the Netherlands, Germany and New Zealand have successfully decriminalised sex work without becoming a hotbed for trafficking, why is the criminalisation of sex work argumentatively so routinely linked with combating trafficking?
The case for criminalisation of sex work as an anti-trafficking strategy
The advocacy for the criminalisation of sex work as an anti-trafficking measure draws from several assumptions. The first assumption is that prostitutes or those eking out a living within the sex industry are easy preys for traffickers who could easily convince them on improved economic fortunes outside Nigerian borders. Secondly, the advocacy for criminalisation of sex work in Africa often cites the Sankara Equality model, a legal framework that recognises prostitution as a form of Gender-based violence, even though sex work happens with the consent of the sex worker. Thirdly, owners of brothels and other related sex work establishments are perceived to be arrowheads or members of transnational trafficking syndicates. These assumptions are, nevertheless, simplistic as they ignore the economic utility and flexibility that sex workers derive from their work. Criminalising essentially shuts the door to their economic prospects in a country that appears exceedingly poor and with an inordinately high unemployment rate. Further, criminalising sex work creates an unsafe space for sex workers to conduct economic activities without fearing harm by clients and the general public.
Is sex work really the problem of sex trafficking?
The current criminalisation advocacy of sex work by select anti-trafficking agencies in Nigeria misidentifies the more substantive factors enabling the problem. The escalation of poverty induced by the post-pandemic era, insecurity and ungovernability in parts of Nigeria, and seeming lack of hope in the political system are all driving factors for human trafficking. More young women (and young people in general), many of whom have no history of being sex workers, are seeking better prospects beyond national borders. Some of these women fall into the hands of traffickers who make them promises of paid employment in the destination country but who end up exploiting them through enforced prostitution. The high numbers of sex trafficked Nigerian women in the mining communities of Mali and Burkina Faso came about this way. This situation was not occasioned by the mere existence of sex work in society but the failure of political governance.
Paradoxically, the high rate of sex trafficking in South Africa is an indication that criminalising sex work has little to do with combating trafficking. South Africa criminalised sex work in its 1957 Sexual Offences Act, which became reinforced in its 2007 Criminal Law Sexual Offenses and Related Matters Amendment Act. Despite these laws, it remains one of the countries of concern for human trafficking according to the US Department of State 2022 report on Trafficking in Person (TIP). On the other hand, there is evidence to suggest that decriminalisation of sex work can prove more strategic in preventing sex trafficking as bad actors are weeded from the industry. For instance, research on the effect of decriminalization of sex work in The Netherlands in 2000 indicated that abuse experienced by sex workers diminished exceptionally once sex work was decriminalized. Routine inspection and the consequences of sanctions for brothels and escort agencies in breach of compliance measures enabled sex workers to operate under safe and healthy conditions, while making trafficking in human beings within the sector difficult.
The rate of international sex trafficking from Nigeria remains alarming, but solutions to the problem cannot not be impulsive or reactionary. The current advocacy for the criminalisation of sex work as a response to the problem ignores or underplays how solving one human rights problem may open the door for other forms of violations. Sex work in itself does not account for the prevalence of sex trafficking as the experiences of countries in the Global North indicates. Criminalisation would simply create a problem out of a purported solution. Sex workers in Nigeria have in the past suffered from rights abuses by law enforcement agencies; and criminalisation would only worsen their concerns about personal safety, not drive down trafficking.
Mitterand Okorie is a postdoctoral research fellow at the African Studies Centre at Rhodes University, South Africa. He is currently researching on protection against human trafficking as a member of the research project ‘When the law is not enough: Intractable problems of human rights in Africa’.
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