Lady P and the sex work sisterhood in Makeni – abused, trafficked or killed?

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.”

During the course of making the film, one of the women from the group, called Gina, was brutally murdered. She broke lockdown rules and her mutilated body was dumped in a swamp.

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.

 

7 Comments

  1. Gentlemen – This is a very fine moment for me to enlighten my brother in law, a loving caring,husband I fondly call the,”The Business Wolf Of Freetown” who told me just yesterday in no uncertain terms that Sex workers do not deserve our sympathies and consideration.Oh well,perhaps the true story I am about to tell will help me change his skeptical mind. Once upon a time in Sierra Leone O ‘Wolf of Freetown’ there was a young innocent teenage girl called Bilkisu that loved to sing,play,laugh,chat and dance. She was an adorable African doll that loved to flirt,and frolic around with boys her age. One day as she lay in her bed she heard the sounds of rapid gun fire nearby accompanied by the frantic voices of people screaming and hollering desperately for help in fear for their lives – the RUF rebels were on a rampage – WAR was now imminently encroaching on her doorsteps. Bilkisu was afraid!

    The Rebels kicked down the doors to Bilkisu’s house and dragged everyone out – his father,mother,grandma and siblings were all shaking,deliriously in tears.Then the Rebel commander gave the solemn order – “Kill them all;” he barked. But then his moving eyes met those of the beautiful Bilkisu as she was shaking her head in tears saying; “No,no,no,no take me with you but spare their lives.” The Rebel commander was completely stunned by her mesmerizing dark chocolate beauty; he raised his loaded gun,fired twice in the air growling;”Stop let them go,nobody lay a finger on anyone – bring the brave girl along, she’s mine now.” And that was the last time the young Bilkisu ever saw her parents and siblings again.The drugged out rebels then went on a killing spree,they robbed,raped,killed,took prisoners,burned scanty towns and whole villages without showing any remorse or mercy at all.

    And as she watched in silence and tears it all seemed like a bizarre,surreal dream to Bilkisu – the beautiful girl without a home.”How can anyone be so cold,wicked and cruel,”she thought in utter grief quietly to herself.Time changes hearts,the RUF rebel commander was madly in love with Bilkisu. In the remote faraway depths of jungles he faithfully found ways to shower her with precious gifts but the young girl was always strangely remote and distant – she anxiously craved and wanted to return to her family and her peaceful home.One day the Commander gathered all his men and warned them that the girl Bilkisu belonged to him,and anyone found guilty of making any kinds of sexual gestures and advances towards her will be instantly put to death.(Gentlemen my attention is needed elsewhere – this heartbreaking,true story of a gentle sex worker will surely continue tomorrow – Inshallah!)(lol)

  2. Prostitution has been called the most ancient profession in the world; Since Biblical times there have been prostitutes plying their trade who are now being referred to in advanced societies as call girls,sex-workers,and female escorts.One thing is true,the names of the ‘Game Of Sensual Pleasures’ may have changed,but the consensual act of performing sexual services in return for a stipulated fee still remains the same. This heartbreaking,eye-opening report highlighting the plight of women and girls in Sierra Leone should remind us that we have not been taking our obligations and responsibilities to our citizens seriously – young girls,in staggering numbers are becoming sex workers everyday just to survive and our delusional government that is totally lacking in strong,dynamic,innovative leadership just doesn’t seem to care at all.

    Its time for the ‘ladies of the night’ and ‘Street walkers’ to finally come to the realization that no one will look out for their interests except themselves.Sex workers should strive to start their own businesses no matter how small,pursue and learn new skills and begin to put plans in place for a brighter future as productive citizens.In such an unnerving high risk profession longevity is not guaranteed,women and girls are being subjected to violence on a daily basis at the hands of ‘Scumbags’ that are not ashamed to call themselves gentlemen.(lol)

    The Ministry of Gender Affairs should be made fully aware that it is their responsibility to rehabilitate and re-orientate women who are hardened criminals,drug addicts,prostitutes and victims of rape. A little empathy,sense of decency and consideration from our government will make a huge difference in transforming the lives of commercial sex workers in our beloved Sierra Leone.Old soldier without a mission,its about damn time you put those tribal ambitions aside and show these women a vision of Hope for a brighter,promising future.(lol)

  3. And you really think such a comment was logical and sensible huh? Well, why don’t you try answering this. Since this is an issue adversely affecting women, why can’t your First lady, millions are calling a Gold Digger, that has been gobbling dollars like a grizzly bear come to their rescue? Strange is it not, for someone to be trying to protect a fragile egg still unhatched and yet neglecting the vulnerable chicken that struggled in pain to lay it? Are these women also not human beings as the young girls she has been exploiting? It is about damn time someone tells her and the crooked old soldier to “HANDS OFF OUR MONEY.” Word!(lol)

  4. Thank you for this terrible report, Mr. Rashid Thomas. Thousands of women are living under these humiliating conditions. Where are they going to find help and support? Only by God? What about support from the first lady, the former first lady, rich people in your country etc.? Why can’t you open a go-fund-me donation account and call for donation?

    • Mr Wiecha – Thanking the Hon Abdul Thomas for the ‘TERRIBLE’ report;(lol) I have always been aware that our friend Mr Reinhard Wiecha has a ‘SOFT’ spot for women, and that’s okay. Its fine! If he is not complaining that women are being under-represented on this glorious forum, he is advocating for their rights to be protected under law which is a truly admirable thing to do. He is not only a thoughtful, intelligent gentleman but a courteous and charming one also. Here’s to you, Sir! You are an inspiration to us all.(lol)

  5. Here is a people failed by their government, failed by the system, failed by law enforcement and failed by communities living and breathing the same air like them. And exploited by people that are meant to help them. These women and girls are condemned to the most horrific horrors that man is capable of inflicting on their fellow human beings. Thanks to the work of Tyson Conteh and the Sierra Leone Telegraph for bringing this issue to light. These women and girls are not living according to their life choices, but as a result of the government abandoning the pact between the citizen and the state.

    The lack of opportunities has pushed them to do what they have do. No one should be surprised at this sort of human misery stories. When the RUF war ended, I don’t think any government thought about the economic impact it will have on the general population, and take steps that will help mitigate the suffering of people like lady P. So when you hear our first lady talking of helping our abused women, these are the sort of people her organisation was meant to help. Instead her husband is spending millions on SUVs, rather than help this forgotten part of our population. Not long ago there were similar stories of women being abused in lumley Beach. This is a huge problem in our country. Government needs to do something.

  6. Some of these people are supporters of the APC in Makeni, so where is the help from their chairman and leader? Or is it the case that such people are only considered during elections?

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