Male and transgender sex workers: a seldom-recognized reality in Cameroon’s fight against HIV
By Steave Nemande, M.D.
Sex work is considered illegal in Cameroon. Prostitution and solicitation are penalized by Article 343 of the Penal Code, providing prison sentences of six months to five years and fines of 20,000 to 500,000 CFA francs ($39 to $976). Paradoxically, the number of sex workers is increasing, reaching an estimated total of 20,145 in 2006.
In 2004, an estimated 3 percent of men reported having had sex with a sex worker; among men whose marriage had broken down, the percentage was 6 percent. HIV infection is growing among sex workers: it rose from 26.4 percent in 2004 to 36.7 percent in 2009.
Sex workers therefore are a high-priority target of the National Strategic Plan for the Fight Against HIV, AIDS and STIs and of the strategy for intervention with vulnerable populations, using Series 10 financing from the Global Fund. Yet no program is specifically designed to target male sex workers.
That shortcoming is the subject of the following interview with Adonis Tchoudja, president of Aids Acodev Cameroon, an organization that focuses on fighting HIV among this minority population.
Adonis, could you explain how did the Aids Acodev Cameroon association was formed?
Aids Acodev Cameroon was created in 2009 by a group of young sex workers who were aware that sex work can increase the risk of contracting STIs, especially HIV and viral hepatitis.
Initially, our organization was called Acodes Cameroon Sex Workers, but we ran into difficulties in getting official approval to register it under that name in the Douala region. As a result, we changed the name to Aids Acodev Cameroon, which stands for Aid to Underprivileged and Vulnerable People in Cameroon.
What is the mission of Aids Acodev Cameroon?
Aids Acodev Cameroon campaigns for the human rights of sex workers, particularly their right to have access to medical services, information, training and education. We also fight against all forms of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, real or imagined.
More specifically, what types of activities do you do? Which audiences are you targeting?
Our actions are aimed at sex workers, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. We conduct an educational night patrol that visits hot spots of the City of Douala, such as brothels, bars, nightclubs, restaurants and massage parlors.
Aids Acodev is also active on some online dating sites and conducts educational talks to some workers’ homes.
We also act as advocates in the community around us, especially the religious community, for acceptance of sex workers and homosexuals.
Programs already exist in the city of Douala that target sex workers and men who have sex with men. Why did you decide to work with this population? What is special about your work?
We work with male and transgender sex workers who otherwise are unserved by any prevention and care program. The national program and community actions targeting sex workers are only for women. As the same time, community programs targeting men who have sex with men (MSM) are not interested in MSM who sell sexual services. Sex work and transactional sex, though they are widespread in the LGBT community, remain taboo or stigmatized.
In addition, organizations that work with sex workers seek to abolish prostitution, while we believe that sex work has been socially necessary since the dawn of time, which should be recognized and protected in the public interest by states.
Do male sex workers face the same problems as female sex workers?
In real life, I would say that all sex workers face the same problems. Their work is hidden because Cameroonian law condemns the practice of prostitution. Men’s sex work is doubly forbidden because another law criminalizes homosexual practices.
Sex work in Cameroon is a socially stigmatized. Sex workers are subject to much abuse and violence from clients, pimps and even law enforcement. Generally, female prostitution is much more tolerated than male prostitution, which police equate with homosexuality.
Could you tell about transgender sex workers?
These are usually male transvestites who are forced to live in hiding and hug the walls so they won’t be noticed on the street. During questioning and arrests, punishments often heavier when police realize that they are dealing with a biological male. Even during sex acts, they often need to hide their sex, which is not easy. We have seen many cases that turned sour when sex workers were beaten by their customers. Some are forced to work with the protection of what we call in our jargon “protect boys” — guys who usually wait behind a door so they can intervene whenever sex workers need protection.
What other challenges do you face in your work?
Because of Articles 343 and 347A [the anti-homosexuality provision] of the Cameroon Penal Code, it is impossible to have recourse to justice even in the worst cases of physical and sexual abuse. If we complain, we are put at risk. We need legal protection.
What are your relationships with other organizations working with female sex workers or men who have sex with men?
We maintain cordial relations with organizations working with female sex workers, even though if we do not share the moralistic and even evangelistic vision behind their actions. Many of them are not run by sex workers, which is reflected in their speech and their attitude, and we do not want others to speak for us. Organizations working with MSM, equating sex work with homosexuality, do not recognize the legitimacy of our work.
Do you have any allies? Are you a member of any networks?
We are allied with the organization Acfili, with which we are in the process of creating a national network of sex workers. We are also working on a regional level with Danaya So in Mali and with Awa in Senegal.
Aids Acodev Cameroon is a member of the Francophone African Network of Sex Work Projects and since 2011 has been a member of NSWP, the Global Network of Sex Work Projects.
What are the prospects for Aids Acodev Cameroon?
Our goal is to work to make Cameroon a country of rights, respect, and tolerance. We are looking for funds to open a drop-in center for counselors and colleagues of female, male and transgender sex workers. We also want to organize a group of human rights observers who will act on violations suffered by these people.
For more information, contact Aids Acodev Cameroon at email@example.com.
This is an English translation of the French-language blog post “VIH et les travailleurs du sexe méconnus au Cameroun,” also on the Erasing 76 Crimes blog.
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