Sex Workers Advocate for Decriminalization of Their Profession in Nigeria

Patricia Okana, who is in her early 30s, is a commercial sex worker.

“It is just like every other thing you do,” she says. “There are challenges, but I thank God it puts food on my table.”

Okana, a widow, says that poverty the main catalyst driving women into commercial sex work here. After her husband died, she struggled to support herself. Frustrated, she eventually listened to a friend’s advice to try sex work. 

“Everything that tastes bitter must first be sweet, and everything that must be sweet must first be bitter,” she says.

Although she says it pays the bills, she says she does not encourage young girls to view commercial sex work as their first option.

“I don’t encourage young girls, especially underage,” she says.

Commercial sex workers in Nigeria are demanding more respect and more rights. Nongovernmental organizations, NGOs, have been promoting various rehabilitation and education initiatives. But prohibative costs for these programs lead some advocates to believe that the best option is to decriminalize commercial sex work. The Nigerian Criminal Code penalizes prostitution with imprisonment, but some say the law shouldn’t govern morality. The government has mentioned no plans to decriminalize sex work and instead promotes education and alternative employment.

Nearly 65 percent of Nigerians live below the international poverty line of $1.25 USD a day, according to UNICEF’s latest statistics. Some say this makes sex work an appealing option to earn a living. Official statistics on the number of sex workers in Nigeria are unavailable.

Earlier this year, 50 commercial sex workers marched around Falomo, a popular district on Lagos Island in southwestern Nigeria. The purpose of the peaceful march was to call Nigerians’ attention to the need to respect the rights of sex workers.

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