ABIDJAN — Transgender sex workers in Ivory Coast say they face a long list of hardships, including social stigma, low pay and - more recently - attacks from the national army. However, the women say they continue to work the streets because it is the only chance they have to truly be themselves.
In a small apartment in Abidjan’s Koumassi neighborhood, two young women lounge about watching Mexican soap operas dubbed in French. Frilly lace curtains partially filter out the midday sun, which bounces off bright pink walls. A poster of Lady Gaga adorns a wall.
The women are waiting for sundown, when their workday begins. They are both transgender sex workers.
At night, they patrol one of two strips in Abidjan that are frequented by sex workers.
Transgender refers to someone who was born one gender but identifies with the other. These women were born male but now dress and live as women.
One of the women, who goes by the street name Sara, began cross-dressing when she was about 16.
She says everything changes at night. At night you become more feminine, you become a woman. She says you go out with your dress and your makeup and you put on your skirt and your heels.
She says no one taught her how to transform herself from a man into a woman, but rather she learned by watching the handful of transgender sex workers living in the neighborhood.
Prostitution is legal in Ivory Coast, but associated acts such as soliciting are not. However, sex workers say that formal legal action was rare.
The prices charged by transgender sex workers vary widely, depending on both the wealth of the client and the act performed. One sex worker told VOA she has been paid as little as $2 for oral sex, while another said she is sometimes able to charge clients up to $200 to spend the night with her.
Sara says she could earn between $600 and $800 per month when she first started out. But all that changed after Ivory Coast's deadly, six-month post-election conflict that ended in April, 2011.
Since then, victims and local LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) rights groups say the army has subjected Abidjan’s transgender sex workers to physical and sexual violence and that soldiers use blackmail and extortion to scare off their clients - nearly all of whom are male.
Sara says her business now depends on luck. She says she can go a whole month without finding a client. She says she makes ends meet by promoting parties and doing publicity work for local bars.
Victims say the attacks, that include being stripped and beaten, have become more common since the end of the crisis.
Sex workers say police and gendarmes sometimes engaged in this activity during the years when former President Laurent Gbagbo was in power. Since the conflict ended, the new national army has taken on a lot of the policing and daily security responsibilities.
VOA contacted several military and government officials about the accusations. They either could not be reached or declined to comment.
Local and international non-governmental organizations released a report at an October summit of the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights that said transgender individuals in Ivory Coast encounter discrimination on a daily basis that can make it difficult for them to find employment outside of sex work.
A sex worker who asked to be identified only as Jennifer says it has been eight years since she left her job as a teacher to assume a female identity. She says she has to go out on the streets every night - regardless of whether she is tired or whether she has recently been beaten by soldiers.
She says it is a hard life, "it’s really difficult." She says nothing is moving (happening) right now because of the situation in the country. She says everyone is afraid including her. She says she does not like stopping for a long time on the street because it puts her at risk. Plus, she says, you can never tell if it is a civilian or a soldier dressed in civilian clothing. "You can never know."
She says she began dressing as a woman at the request of a man she was seeing, the same man who also began paying for her to receive hormone replacement therapy.
Although transgender sex workers in Abidjan are almost always too poor to undergo sex change operations, many inject themselves with female hormones to become more feminine. The treatment can lead to the growth of breasts and the redistribution of body fat, among other changes.
Hormone injections also carry serious health risks ranging from blood clotting to depression to the transmission of infections with dirty needles. The risks are especially high when treatment is not overseen by a doctor.
Matthew Thomann, an anthropologist and doctoral candidate at American University who has researched transgender sex workers in Abidjan, says they have few outlets for support.
“Not only do they face direct physical violence from the state, they also face discrimination and stigmatization from within the community,” he said.
He says authorities do not often take complaints they might file seriously. And other gay men and lesbians - who also face discrimination - are reluctant to be associated with them.
Despite the challenges, many transgender sex workers say they look forward to going out on the strip for one simple reason: it is the only place where they are able to be themselves.
A sex worker who goes by the name Raissa says she does not need the money, but she has no plans to stop working the streets, even though she says she has been beaten by soldiers three different times.
She says she is finally able to feel like a woman. She is able to be free. Before, she says she was calm, reserved. She says she kind of kept to herself. When she started going out to work in the street, she says, she learned how to free herself, to struggle. She says it was like training for her, and it changed her life.