News / Africa

Transgender Sex Workers in Ivory Coast Face Abuse

x
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.

You May Like

Photogallery Oxfam: Ebola Could Be 'Disaster of Our Generation'

Meanwhile, Fidel Castro, the former leader of Cuba, says the Caribbean island nation will 'gladly cooperate' with the US in the fight against Ebola in West Africa More

Multimedia Kobani Fighting Sends 400,000 Refugees to Turkey

Refugees receive help from Turkish authorities and individuals, but say much more is needed More

India’s Ruling Nationalist Party Makes Gains in Regional Elections

Bharatiya Janata Party’s huge margin over its rivals puts it on course to form governments in the northern Haryana and western Maharashtra states More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: PJ from: USA
December 20, 2012 10:35 AM
Thank you so much, VOA, for reporting on transgender sex workers in Ivory Coast.

Transgender people around the world face appalling discrimination that forces them to do sex work just to stay alive.

Some people are straight. Some people are gay. Some people are transgender. It's not a matter of "values". Straight people aren't more pure or more valuable than transgender people. All people are equally valuable.


by: Joe from: US
December 20, 2012 12:34 AM
The headline says it all. Transgender Sex Worker...really? There's a social stigma and low pay? Wow, and the transgender prostitutes in the US are held in super high esteem and make six-figures. It's all rainbows and unicorns for them.

The article is well written and informative. The headline is stupid. And yes, it's hard not to feel sorry for "Jennifer". But really, what's to be expected as a transgender sex worker?

Headline: Convicted Murderers Prefer Freedom to Prison. Joe "the Assasin" Smith finds prison life difficult. Daily rape by the prison guards really bring Joe down. But, arguing that his last appeal hasn't been heard yet; wishes he could just be himself...out of jail.


by: Jerry from: USA
December 19, 2012 11:52 AM
I am an American who has lived in Ivory Coast since 1985. I am against all human rights abuse, regardless of who it is against. Today I am shamed by VOA and the journalist who makes the biggest story in Ivory Coast to be news of human rights abuse against transgender sex workers. Parts of Abidjan are wonderful but when you travel outside of it, you will find stories of farmers who are struggling to produce enough food for families while enduring government forces who hinder that effort. You will hear of young girls being molested by men in authority. I have reported and called attention to murder, rapes, extortions and injustices while I lived in the Bouna region to Ivorian and US State Department officials. I believe we need to be proactive in bringing to light problems for people to act upon. Your focus on transgender sex workers abuse reflects concerns for humans but protecting sex workers is not like protecting virgin girls from rape and abuse. I want readers to know there are some Americans who have different values than the author of this article. May God have mercy on America and Ivory Coast.

In Response

by: HopefulButSad from: USA
December 21, 2012 7:27 AM
Kudos to PJ from US - I am certain that God loves us all! He did not create anyone less that another. Lets put our voices together to eradicate abuses of all kind.

In Response

by: PJ from: US
December 20, 2012 10:40 AM
Everyone is one of God's precious children. God doesn't love transgender people less than virgin girls.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Exclusive: American Joins Kurds' Anti-IS Fighti
X
Zana Omer
October 18, 2014 6:37 PM
The United States and other Western nations have expressed alarm about their citizens joining Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq. In a rare counterpoint to the phenomenon, an American has taken up arms with the militants' Syrian Kurdish opponents. Elizabeth Arrott has more in this exclusive profile by VOA Kurdish reporter Zana Omer in Ras al Ayn, Syria.
Video

Video Exclusive: American Joins Kurds' Anti-IS Fight

The United States and other Western nations have expressed alarm about their citizens joining Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq. In a rare counterpoint to the phenomenon, an American has taken up arms with the militants' Syrian Kurdish opponents. Elizabeth Arrott has more in this exclusive profile by VOA Kurdish reporter Zana Omer in Ras al Ayn, Syria.
Video

Video South Korea Confronts Violence Within Military Ranks

Every able-bodied South Korean male between 18 and 35 must serve for 21 to 36 months in the country’s armed forces, depending upon the specific branch. For many, service is a rite of passage to manhood. But there are growing concerns that bullying and violence come along with the tradition. Reporter Jason Strother has more from Seoul.
Video

Video Comanche People Maintain Pride in Their Heritage

The Comanche (Indian nation) once were called the “Lords of the Plains,” with an empire that included half the land area of current day Texas, large parts of Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas and Colorado.The fierceness and battle prowess of these warriors on horseback delayed the settlement of most of West Texas for four decades. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Lawton, Oklahoma, that while their warrior days are over, the 15,000 members of the Comanche Nation remain a proud people.
Video

Video Turkey Campus Attacks Raise Islamic Radicalization Fears

Concerns are growing in Turkey of Islamic radicalization at some universities, after clashes between supporters of the jihadist group Islamic State (IS) or ISIS, and those opposed to the extremists. Pro-jihadist literature is on sale openly on the streets of Istanbul. Critics accuse the government of turning a blind eye to radicalism at home, while Kurds accuse the president of supporting IS - a charge strongly denied. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Syrian Defector Leaks Shocking Photos of Torture Victims

Shocking photographs purporting to show Syrian torture victims are on display at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. The museum says the graphic images are among thousands of photographs recently smuggled out of Syria by a military policeman-turned-defector. As VOA reporter Julie Taboh reports, the museum says the photos provide further evidence of atrocities committed by the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against its own people.
Video

Video Drought-Stricken California Considers Upgrading Water System

A three-year drought in California is causing a water shortage that is being felt on farms and cities throughout the state. As VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports, water experts, consumers and farmers say California needs to make changes to cope with an uncertain future.
Video

Video TechShop Puts High-tech Dreams Within Reach

Square, a business app and card reader, makes it possible to do credit card transactions through cell phones. But what made Square possible? VOA’s Adrianna Zhang and Enming Liu have the answer.
Video

Video Church for Atheists Goes Global

Atheists, by definition, do not believe in God. So they should have no need of a church. But two years ago, a pair of British stand-up comedians decided to create one. Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans told the BBC they envisioned “something like church but without God". Their “Sunday Assembly” movement has grown from a single congregation in London to dozens of churches around the world. Reporter Mike Osborne visited with the members of a Sunday Assembly that now meets regularly in Nashville.
Video

Video Robot Locates Unexploded Underwater Mines

Many educators believe that hands-on experience is the best way to learn. Proving that the method works is a project developed by a group of students at the Stevens Institute of Technology, in Hoboken, New Jersey. They rose up to a challenge posted by the U.S. Department of Defense and successfully designed and built an underwater robot for locating submerged unexploded ordnance. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Liberia's JFK Hospital Reopens After Temporary Ebola Exposure

JFK Hospital is Liberia’s largest and one of its oldest medical facilities. The hospital had to close temporarily following the deaths of two leading doctors from Ebola. It is now getting back on its feet, with the maternity ward being the first section to reopen. Benno Muchler has more for VOA News from Monrovia.
Video

Video Hong Kong Protests Expose Generation Gap

Most of the tens of thousands of protesters in Hong Kong are students seeking democracy. Idealistic youths say while the older generation worries about the present, they are fighting for the territory's future. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Hong Kong.
Video

Video Liberians Living in US Struggle From Afar as Ebola Ravages Homeland

More than 8,000 Liberians live in New York City, more than in any other city outside of Liberia itself. As VOA’s Bernard Shusman reports, with the Ebola virus ravaging their homeland, there is no peace of mind for these New Yorkers.
Video

Video Kurds See War-Ravaged Kobani As Political, Emotional Heartland

Intense fighting is continuing between Islamic State militants -- also known as ISIS or ISIL -- and Kurdish forces around the Syrian town of Kobani, on the Turkish border. The U.S. said it carried out at least nine airstrikes against Islamic State positions Friday. Meanwhile the U.N. has warned that hundreds of civilians would be massacred if the town falls to the militants. Henry Ridgwell looks at the strategic significance of the city.

All About America

AppleAndroid