In recent years, commercial sex workers in several countries, like South Korea, Kenya and France have held public protests against strict anti-prostitution laws. In Nigeria’s conservative north, sex workers are not marching on the streets or calling for more rights. They are calling on the government to help them get out of the business.
In this complex in Kaduna, a city in northern Nigeria best known for sectarian violence and ever-deepening poverty, about 30 women pay a little over $8 a day for a spot in a corner of a room. After they pay their rent, the most money they can make in a day as prostitutes is $10. Some days they make nothing.
One woman, who didn't want to give her name, says the worst part is that besides being desperately poor, they are shunned by their communities.
“The majority don’t have respect for us because they think we are not among the living in the society. They feel we are not supposed to be among them because we are here. They discriminate us. While some still take us to be human, the majority don’t really respect and regard us as human," she said.
She said she wants out of the business and that the government and aid agencies should help. Other women in the complex agree, saying as little as $180 would be enough to get them out.
“Of course this is no life. This is no life. As I’m talking to you I’m cold. I feel like crying. No life," said a second woman.
Poverty alleviation in Nigeria, which is rare, usually takes the form of micro-loans or training that helps people start small businesses. Idris Mussa is a member of the Kaduna State HIV/AIDS department. He says the department is planning to expand its services to include former prostitutes.
“Once they have the basic training you will be able to give them the small-scale micro-finance. Something that they can be able do, some income generation, thereby they can be self reliant on their own," he said.
Other officials say prostitutes who want to quit should have priority in accessing these kinds of services because their work contributes to the spread of HIV/AIDS.
Yusuf Arrigasiyyu is the executive director of Muslim League of Accountability in Nigeria, an organization that is calling for government and international assistance in setting up programs to help women who want to leave prostitution. He says, ultimately, these programs could help save the country money.
“If they don’t leave prostitution, government spends more. Through them you can have HIV, you can have sexually transmitted disease and other diseases that are related to prostitution. Now government spends more in providing health care for people that are contracting that disease," he said.
Prostitutes say the idea of calling for assistance is relatively new to them and to date they have been entirely neglected by aid organizations and the government.
But Kaduna State Commissioner of Information Alhaji Saidu Adamu says this is not true. He says the local government would support women who want to leave prostitution, but it’s their job to seek help.
“They have to make the initiative. If they initiate leaving that profession we are ever ready and willing and we will be happy knowing fully that our people now will be more functional, they will be more healthy. We are also going to reduce the spread of AIDS in our society," he said.
Adamu says prostitutes usually don’t seek government help because they fear they will be arrested. He promises women will not be incarcerated or harmed if they come forward now.
At the complex, the women say they are arrested and harassed constantly. They say they find the state government's promise hard to believe.
Ibrahima Yakubu contributed to this report form Kaduna.