Jean-Jacques Kouoh in Yaounde, and Henriette Dimidi and Monique Koumo in Douala
In Cameroon, sex workers are often social outcasts. The same women who are sought-after at night are pointed at during the day, at times by the same men who visited them during the night.
Most sex workers are forced by circumstance into their profession. They often know little about the health risks and do not have the power to negotiate with their clients over issues such as condom use. As each sex worker is estimated to sleep with at least 150 married men a year, the consequences for Cameroon society could be tragic. The HIV rate is believed to be about seven per cent among people aged 15 to 49, but much higher among sex workers.
Samantha, a sex worker in Douala, speaks for many when she says she didn’t choose this life.
“There are days when there are problems at work. I don’t really enjoy this profession. But the circumstances of my life have forced me on to the street.”
When the Cameroon Red Cross decided to improve the lot of sex workers, it called its project “Filles Libres,” (Free Girls), sending a message that it would not discriminate against or stigmatise sex workers. Its aims were two-fold: to reduce stigma and discrimination, and to fight the spread of HIV.
In 2004, the Cameroon Red Cross launched Filles Libres in Yaoundé with the support of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ regional office for Central Africa and with advice from the Association of Active Women in Cameroon, a group of women with HIV, and the Friends of Prudence, a collective of sex workers.
The Red Cross set up a Filles Libres support centre, and sex workers were encouraged to attend the newly opened Henry Dunant Health Centre, named after the founder of the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement. At the health centre, women are treated with dignity and in confidentiality, at low cost. They can access voluntary counselling and testing for a range of conditions. For once, they are treated as patients, rather than looked down on.
At the support centre, the women are trained in using condoms and negotiating with their clients to use them too.
Women who are registered as Filles Libres at the support centre can also apply for microcredit to start an income-generating project. The small amounts of money are enough to offer a choice to women who previously had none. So far about 40 women have benefited from microcredit, using their EUR 535 or US$ 650 each to set up hair-dressing salons, mobile phone businesses or food stalls.
The Cameroon Red Cross does not have enough money to help all the women it could and has been fundraising, with the support of the International Federation.
However, in September 2005, the Cameroon Red Cross took the successful project to Douala, a city of two million people. As the economic capital of Cameroon and the main entry into the country, Douala is the sex-work hub of Cameroon. The HIV rate is believed to be 12 per cent or higher.
The Red Cross trained 21 volunteers in Douala as peer educators. Of them, nine are sex workers. One of them, Henriette, says she is happy to be a peer educator.
“My wish is to have the power to advise my sisters because we have to help one another.”
Over the past four months, Red Cross volunteers have organised more than 300 educational talks attended by more than 1600 Filles Libres.
Judith, another sex worker in Douala, says she hopes she can benefit from Filles Libres.
“When I accepted the invitation to go to the Filles Libres support centre, I told myself that the Red Cross could help me.
“Life is very uncertain. We aren’t sure how much we can earn in an evening. I am ready to leave, because I need to rebuild my life.”
Her colleague, Samantha, says she pictures a different life for herself.
“I am ready to leave this work. I had a professional education, but because of the minimal wages, I found myself on the street. In a week here I earn what I could earn in a month in a job. If this project succeeds, I would leave the street and establish my own business.”
Filles Libres coordinator Samuel Etame said the Douala branch of the Red Cross hopes to reach more women.
“Our ambition is to register a good number of sex workers who will be trained as peer educators,” he said.
The Cameroon Red Cross would like to expand Filles Libres. It has already been replicated by Red Cross societies in Sao Tome and Principe, the Central African Republic and Equatorial Guinea.
To support their anti-stigma message, a Red Cross theatre group, Humanitarian Soldiers, stages plays in public places, businesses and schools on topics such as HIV or peace. These are relevant themes at a time when many people live with discrimination or stigma, especially because of their work.