As I sat in a dark room in Abuja for the screening of Kenneth Gyang’s celebrated film about sex trafficking, Òlòturé, I prepared to watch yet another glamorized depiction of life in prostitution. I had been invited from my home country in South Africa to join a group of women’s rights organizations on a multi-city tour in Nigeria to screen Gyang’s film to discuss the acute sex trafficking crisis in the country. The International Organization for Migration estimates that approximately 1.4 million people in Nigeria are victims of this global scourge, the majority of whom are women and girls trafficked for sexual exploitation within its borders and worldwide.
The auditorium of the Yar’Adua Center was at capacity with local Nigerian dignitaries, civil society members, and ambassadors from Argentina, Brazil, France, Italy, Spain, Sweden, and the United States. But as soon as the film’s first frames filled the screen, I felt alone, entirely swept up in my own memories.
As a survivor of prostitution, I do not often see my story accurately reflected in art or media. But Òlòturé, set in Lagos, does not shy away from portraying the brutal realities of the sex trade. I recognized it all: the violence and dehumanization sex buyers inflicted on me, the harassment and corruption of the police, the deaths of my sex trade sisters, and the indifference of my community and country to our struggles. Òlòturé happens to be about the grooming and recruitment of women by sex traffickers in Nigeria for the brothels of Europe, but the script is universal.
The sex trade, which includes street prostitution, escorting, online “sugar-dating,” strip clubs, and pornography, is a complex multi-billion-dollar system of bottomless sexual exploitation that preys on the most vulnerable among us for the pleasure of men and the profit of a few. The sex trade is the only reason sex trafficking exists. Once you are brought into it, it’s almost impossible to leave.
Women and girls do not choose prostitution: prostitution chooses them. Prostitution is chosen for us by the injustices of our colonial past and apartheid, persistent inequalities, poverty, past sexual and physical abuse, pimps who take advantage of our vulnerabilities, and the men who buy us in prostitution.
Nigerian women make up the majority of sex trafficking victims in Europe. The United Nations reports that 80% of Nigerian women who are sent to the shores of Italy, France, or Spain are sold into prostitution. This is because a market awaits them: eager sex buyers waiting for the latest batch of African cargo of poor women desperately seeking a better life. In fact, the problem is so widespread that after the screening multiple women approached me to share the ways prostitution and sex trafficking has impacted their lives.
So, why do we accept this predicament for women? Thomas Sankara, the revolutionary Pan-Africanist and former president of Burkina Faso once said, “Prostitution is a symbol of the contempt men have for women.” Every survivor of the sex trade knows this contempt firsthand.
As an activist who travels the world speaking about the harms of prostitution, I now spend my time advocating for the SankaraEquality Model. This legal framework recognises the system of prostitution as a form of gender-based violence and discrimination and functions as a tool to prevent sex trafficking. The law ends the criminalisation of people in prostitution, offers them services and exit opportunities, while holding sex buyers accountable for the egregious harm they cause. Sweden was the first country to pass such a law in 1999 targeting sex buyers who fuel the global multi-billion-dollar sex trade and today, Canada, France, Iceland, Israel, Northern Ireland, Norway, the Republic of Ireland have all enacted this law.
Tragically, my country is now proposing to do the opposite and decriminalise the sex trade, which would allow prostitution to flourish on every corner of South Africa. The bill signals to men that women’s bodies are still for sale and ready for abuse, without consequence. While South Africa is considering embracing pimps and traffickers, Nigeria can and must lead the continent in a different direction and instead enact the SankaraEquality Model.
By doing so, Nigeria would become the first African country to recognise that prostitution is male violence against women and that the demand for prostitution leads to sex trafficking and human rights violations.
Although it’s been years since I have escaped prostitution, I still find it difficult to sleep at night. I thank God and my lucky stars that I have made it out alive. I know many will not. It’s time we stop condemning generations of women and girls to violence and dehumanisation. Nigerian women dream of a world where they can thrive as full human beings, worthy of equality and dignity, without fear of being sold to the highest bidder.