BBC Africa Eye: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 10 February 2021:
BBC Africa Eye documentary follows the life of a group of sex workers in Sierra Leone, where sex workers are often seen as immoral outcasts to be shunned and avoided, even though their profession is legal.
BBC Africa Eve investigates an unsolved murder of a sex worker in the country and uncovers a world where women who sell sex are often trafficked, abused, attacked and even killed.
Local filmmaker Tyson Conteh, follows a group of sex workers in the city of Makeni, led by a woman called Lady P who is on a mission to fight for justice and improve their rights.
Recently there have been a spate of brutal murders against sex workers. With children to provide for and no partner around to help, they have no choice but to carry on. The Coronavirus pandemic has only served to make their survival even more precarious.
Curfews have reduced the hours they work and social distancing has kept many customers away. Even though their job is legal, sex workers don’t get government cash to ease the impact of coronavirus, unlike many others.
There are estimated to be more than a thousand sex workers in the city. They regularly face the threat of physical and sexual violence from men, with little protection from the law – and the police are sometimes the culprits.
Lady P who is known as the matriarch among the sex workers. Her story is in many ways, the story of Sierra Leone over the last 30 years. Despite suffering so much pain, she shows great strength and courage.
At the age of 10, she witnessed the killing of her aunt and her gran during the country’s brutal civil war in the nineties. She was then captured by rebel forces and taken to Liberia. Lady P finally returned to Sierra Leone in 2002 to find the country devastated and she had no choice but to become a sex worker at the age of 14.
In 2014, and by now married with children, the deadly Ebola epidemic wiped out her family. But she does not let this tragic past stop her. Lady P says “Because of the bad things that happened to me, from my life experiences, I want to make sure it does not happen to others. Because of that I stand firm, I fight hard and fight to my last drop of blood to make sure every sex worker knows their rights no matter what.”
Meanwhile, another member of Lady’s P’s group, Isata, is badly beaten up by a client. Isata is a 21-year-old single mother who turned to sex work at the age of 14. A few weeks later, when Tyson goes back to see how Isata is doing she has disappeared.
With Lady P’s help, eventually they discover she has been trafficked to The Gambia, a notorious sex tourism hotspot. She and another sex worker from Makeni, called IK, get trafficked even further to Senegal and are eventually abandoned in Mali.
This latest investigation from BBC Africa Eye takes you deep into the world of sex workers. What hope is there for these women? Will the police find out who murdered Gina? Will Isata and IK make it safely back to Sierra Leone or will they suffer the fate of so many other sex workers?
You can watch the BBC Africa Eye video here:
The editor of the Sierra Leone Telegraph – Abdul Rashid Thomas, spoke to Tyson Conteh about the plight of the sex workers in Makeni in particular, and Sierra Leone in general. This is what he said:
Sierra Leone Telegraph (SLT): What has happened since you covered this story. Has there been any progress with the police investigation?
Tyson Conteh (TC): Unfortunately, there has not been any progress. I called the police and they said they needed a post-mortem result from the pathologist and then the investigation will start. The family had no means of getting the money to pay for a post-mortem, which cost $40 – $50. Transport from the provinces to Freetown and back will cost an additional $40. In January, the government approved the mass burial of 83 unidentified corpses which were lying in the mortuary. She was one of those buried in a mass grave.
SLT: How is the family taking all this; as I presume it must be devastating for them?
T.C.: I spoke to her mother and it is a very difficult time for her. She raised her daughter all on her own, as the father abandoned her when she gave birth. Unfortunately, the daughter is now dead, and it is a big loss to her mother. She has left a 6-year-old child Rugiatu. She is now the child’s carer and she is old and poor. She has no-one to turn to for help and will be grieving for her daughter for a long time.
SLT: Are social work officials involved in this case at all?
TC: Not that I am aware of. Covid19 restrictions are also playing a part in preventing help coming to these women. I tried to get some support and her mother was very happy about this, as she wanted support and also justice for her daughter. However, I have been unable to pull any strings at the social welfare office.
SLT: It was quite troubling to hear on the video that police officers who are meant to protect citizens, are themselves accused of violence against these women. What are the police saying about these constant violence attacks on these women?
TC: I have tried several times to contact the police for comments to these accusations. It seems Freedom of speech in the police is limited, as however much you try, you cannot speak to a police officer and vice versa. They have to be given authority by their superiors who are all the way in Freetown to speak to the media. I tried in Makeni and was not granted an interview. I went to Freetown and met the senior police officer responsible for speaking to the media, but he could not respond to my questions, saying ‘I do not know what the law says’. I asked him who else I could speak to who would help me, but he did not know.
I worked with an organisation called Advocaid, who protects the rights of women in general. I learnt that the police can only investigate, if there is mobile footage evidence which implicates the police officer. It is very difficult for women in a police cell, to be able to provide mobile evidence of sexual harassment.
SLT: These women are out there in very dangerous situations. Surely Makeni being the hometown of the former president Ernest Bai-Koroma and other former high-profile ministers, should be able to assist these women to get off the streets and into business enterprise or vocational training. Is there no help coming from these community leaders to help these women?
TC: If the former president and his ministers could help, they would have done so when they were in power. Now, they are not in control of resources or decisions, so they cannot help. It is now down to their individual humanitarian feeling to help where they can. So far, I have not heard of any help given to them. I spoke to the lady who looks after these women, Lady P, and she has never mentioned receiving help from any organisation or persons in Makeni. I do not know of any project started by the former president to help these women.
SLT: What role are the Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) playing in terms of giving necessary assistance to these women?
TC: I am aware of two organisations giving help. The organisation Advocaid which helps women in all sorts of difficulty, does help to give them some training. Another organisation is focussed on the health of the women. They provide condoms and lubricants and free HIV tests for them. They cannot go to the normal hospitals and clinics, for fear of stigmatisation and lack of confidentiality from the health workers.
The biggest problem for these sex workers is security, which is not available from the government. The police need to interview these women and do research as to their needs, but this is not being done. Unfortunately, a sex worker is marginalised and regarded as an outcast in society, as it is thought that they bring shame and disgrace to their families.
The narrative and perceptions of society in general must change, so that these women are regarded as good people.
SLT: The airing on BBC will hopefully give good coverage to this story and show the plight of these women; and help may come after people have seen the article or watched the video. Hopefully, readers can get in touch with the NGOs to help these women.