Solidarity with ladies of the night

A couple of months ago, prostitutes in the Kenyan town of Nakuru took to the streets to demand, not better rates – that would be absurd as they earn more than most Kenyans, but legal recognition for their profession. Since they are involved in an illegal trade, say they, they are being singled out by violent customers and unscrupulous police officers who prey on them simply because they exist, precariously, outside the margins of legality; the law does not countenance their right to exist which means they are unable to take their case to court any time they are ill-treated or are forced to do things they do not want to do. 

Extreme violence against sex workers has been on the rise in Kenya, including the murder of seven sex workers and the mutilation of their private parts by self-proclaimed enforcers of morality in Nakuru which gave impetus to the demonstration in that town. According to estimates by the organizers of the demonstration, about forty prostitutes are murdered each month in the country.

What are we to make of this? Notwithstanding our views regarding the legalization of prostitution, we must appreciate the courage it must have taken to demonstrate publicly for one of the most unpopular causes on the African continent. Even if theirs is a minority proposition, the fact that prostitutes saw something wrong with the system and went out to demand change is beyond commendable.

Having said that, even the demand itself, that sex work should be legalized, is something we ought to consider relevant to our situation. Despite the claim by a considerable number of Ethiopians that Italian occupation introduced prostitution into the country in the late 1930s, it has been around for many years; the number of sex workers may have proliferated during the occupation due to increased urbanization, but it is ludicrous to claim prostitution did not exist in Ethiopia before then. Emperor Fasil, a most pious monarch, had built his famous castle in the seventeenth century complete with a secret “fifth” gate for his many consorts to enter and exit the royal chambers unnoticed. So, prostitution and whatever demands associated with it are nothing but relevant to us.

Of course, Kenyan sex workers took to the streets to protest the extreme violence; we, on the other hand, know of no case of widespread violence that specifically targets sex workers in Ethiopia, nor are we aware of any case in which the police systematically singled out sex workers for violent treatment; in fact, the police are usually at hand to keep the peace and give assistance to anyone in need. In other words, prostitutes are subjected to no more violence by virtue of their line of work than other sections of Ethiopian society are by virtue of their political opinions. Be that as it may, prostitution in Ethiopia is a fact which has problematic outgrowths, including child exploitation, human trafficking and the spread of Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs). We have to address these issues, but only if we are unsettled by the status quo; if we think things are fine the way they are, then there is no argument.

Let us dispatch the easier issue first – STDs. In general, the government has achieved some success in this regard by expanding the extent of its reproductive health education programs to reach every village in the country. We are not a branch of the government and we are not going to use statistics, like the number of condoms distributed nationwide, to trumpet the state’s success, but we are going to acknowledge that strides have been made.

With that being said, we turn now to the more complicated outgrowths of prostitution – child exploitation and human trafficking. But before that, let us first establish the status of prostitution in Ethiopia. Considering it has been around for a very long time and is currently prevalent in almost every city in the country, we cannot conclude otherwise than that it enjoys official tolerance, and dare we say it, official patronage, at least in some cases.

Even Ethiopian law tolerates sex work. Article 846(b) of the federal criminal code states: whoever in the street or in a public place or in a place accessible to the public by improper soliciting incites another person to sexual intercourse […] is punishable with fine or arrest not exceeding one month. And Article 635(a) states: whoever, for gain, or to gratify the passions of another traffics in women or minors, whether by seducing them, by enticing them, or by procuring them or otherwise inducing them to engage in prostitution, even with their consent is punishable with rigorous imprisonment […].

Mind you, the article that censures prostitution, Article 846, falls in the criminal code under a section entitled petty offenses against morality, whereas the article that censures the exploitation of another person for sexual purposes, Article 635, provides for more rigorous punishment. This tells us, at least in theory, prostitution is punished with less severity than its own negative effect, in this case the sexual exploitation of other persons. Just the same, applying these and the many other legal provisions against prostitution, even with all due inflexibility, amounts, if at all, to some mitigation of a negative effect associated with it, not to its complete ban.

Having established the status prostitution enjoys in Ethiopia, we proceed to consider some solutions that may help mitigate it or its negative effects, namely child exploitation and human trafficking. Would a complete ban work? Many have failed to stamp out prostitution. The Kenyan authorities have repeatedly failed and so have others. Even in territories under the control of the terror group Islamic State (IS), we recently heard reports about their allegedly most austere fighters releasing captives in return for sexual favors.

If IS, a most brutal organization that beheads and stones people to death for having sex outside of marriage, could not abolish the sexual exchange of favors of which prostitution is just one variety, no one could. Iran provides another interesting example: they banned prostitutes after the 1979 Islamic revolution, only to provide an outlet to their people in the form of temporary marriages or “Sigheh”, which are arranged between prostitutes and their clients and are immediately dissolved after transaction.

Prostitution or those acts that involve compensation in return for sexual favors, along with espionage, sorcery (some call it religion) and politics, is one of the oldest professions. Banning it is simply unrealistic. And for that reason, we must leave the very act of exchange as a matter that should concern only those persons involved in it and focus instead on alleviating some of its negative consequences for society.

Children are kidnapped from the countryside and transported to the cities to work as prostitutes. The countryside has always been a source of cheap labor and raw materials. Prostitutes make a portion of that cheap labor. Economic factors even force some parents to send their underage children to work as housemaids in the cities where the unfortunate ones become prostitutes. But how to end this? We already said a complete ban on prostitution is impractical. And since the status quo is favorable to inhuman activities like those just mentioned, we must propose a radical solution. If we cannot prevent the actual act, we should at least try to lessen some of its effects. We propose, accordingly, the licensing of all sex workers in Ethiopia, that is to say, the legalization of prostitution.

Legalization would enable the authorities to monitor sex workers, where they come from, and more importantly, their age and the state of their health. Of course, there are many drawbacks, the major one being that prostitution treats people as a means to an end, something akin to chattel slavery. But even those who subscribe to the Kantian concept of morality which holds all humanity as an end in itself and never merely as a means, would be hard pressed to point to just one instance throughout human existence when it was possible to successfully abolish prostitution. Having said all that, however, we cannot escape the fact that we are a people more likely to be guided by hypocrisy than sound reason and must therefore leave the matter with this example:

The last emperor of Ethiopia, an anointed of god to many and an actual god to some, always exuded a pious self-control. Well, as it turns out, he was less successful at subduing his urges than his aura suggested. In an account left behind by his attendant and published posthumously under the Amharic title Yenegussu Gemena: throughout his reign and late into his old age, Haile-Selassie enjoyed the company of beautiful women not even half his age who were rewarded handsomely for their afternoon visits. What exactly happened in those private quarters is anybody’s guess; even the emperor’s confidantes can only attest that beautiful women went in and came out, nothing more. But we just don’t believe the emperor was briefing the ladies on the soldiers’ uprising in Arsi Negele.