By Beau Flemister (As Seen on VICE.com)
In the spring of 2007 *Lovely Osaro left Sokoto, Nigeria with a group other migrants to make the long and dangerous overland journey through the Sahara Desert into Libya, where they would cross the Mediterranean toward Italy. Lovely was 22 years old then, from a poor farming family and was supposed to be married to a much older man. In the region where Lovely comes from, many women must be circumcised at marriage and she did not want this. A woman had approached her in the local market and offered to be her “sponsor” to bring her to Europe in order to escape this fate. Lovely agreed, and so she, and 24 others, were smuggled in a truck transporting goats and cattle to Niger.
“I didn’t really have a plan,” Lovely told me, in a crowded café where we’d met in Paris’ 20th District. We’d gotten a few looks from the table next to us. “I just figured that if I got to any place in Europe, I would be fine. It didn’t matter which country.”
Shortly before the Nigeria-Niger border, the truck broke down and they walked all night into Niger. After three days at a safe house, they were hidden in another truck carrying bags of rice. By the time they got to an outpost in northern Niger called Duruku, two of her friends had died of unknown sickness. There were no doctors around to help them.
“One had a previous heart condition and died of chest pains. The other one had stomach pains. I’m still not sure exactly what is was that killed them,” she explained to me.
From Duruku it took them 11 days and 11 nights, some by truck, some on foot, to cross the Sahara into Libya. There wasn’t nearly enough food and water for everyone and Lovely recalls people fainting as well as passing the bodies of others who had attempted the same journey, lying dead on the side of the road. The ground was so hot, that it burned their feet through the soles of their shoes.
By the time they got to Libya, there were 20 of them. They eventually got to the coastal town of Zuwara and from there, Lovely boarded an inflatable Zodiac with a small outboard motor.
The seas were so rough that two people fell overboard (but were saved by those that could swim) and the Zodiac began to deflate. Three days passed and they had drifted into Italian sea territory and were rescued by the Red Cross off of Lampedusa Island. None of the migrants had any papers whatsoever and they were transferred to a reception center on mainland Italy, where she left a month later. Within a year, Lovely would eventually make it Paris where she would become a prostitute to pay for the debt that she owed her sponsor.
Lovely’s story is not an uncommon one and Penelope Giacardy of the Paris NGO, L’Association Les Amis du Bus des Femmes, has written it many times for many different women.
* * *
Inside the office of L’Association Les Amis du Bus des Femmes (ABDF), everything is pink or various shades thereof. The tabletops, the wallpaper, the waiting room sofas and seat cushions, the wastebasket and even the foam ceiling tiles like you’d see in drab office buildings—all pink. The décor looks like the inside of a kitschy love motel minus the king-size Magic Fingers bed.
L’Association Les Amis du Bus des Femmes is an organization that was established in 1990 to fight for the rights of sex workers around Paris, primarily, to get them medical attention during the AIDS epidemic. With the help of the World Health
Organization, they became an NGO in 1994—the first of its kind—that now, follows and supports over 1,500 women every year in Paris, while also fighting against human trafficking and sexual exploitation.
Specializing in women, ABDF was started by prostitutes for prostitutes and half the staff are still active sex workers.
Today, ABDF provides sex workers with anything they might need from medical support, legal representation, social workers, French language classes, health care insurance to legal workshops, HIV/STD screening, prophylactics, housing, and of course—a bus that meets them sex-workers in the trenches.
The bus, or ABDF’s refurbished mobile-unit that roams the streets of Paris and its more nefarious outskirts, is both where Penelope got her start in the organization and where Lovely made contact with ABDF.
“We found Lovely when she was working in the 18th district of Paris, which is an area where there is a lot of foreign-workers,” said Penelope. Penelope is even-toned, no-bullshit, has tired eyes but is quick to smile. “Lovely had a big medical problem.
She had badly broken her arm in a car accident about a year and a half before she left Nigeria. She had no money, so she didn’t even see a doctor there. She actually suffered a compound fracture and her arm was basically broken in three places. It was so painful that she couldn’t use it and the muscles were beginning to shrink.”
The bus found Lovely on the street and Lovely decided to come into the office. There, she met with Penelope who escorted her to a hospital in Paris where they managed to perform a series of operations on her arm, actually requiring bone reconstruction to fix it. But in the end, the procedure was a success.
For the three months while Lovely was healing from the operation, ABDF paid her bills and fed her. Penelope also wrote her asylum letter, which details her escape from female-circumcision, a letter that is being processed right now.
“This is a perfect example of how our organization helps women because Lovely thought that because she didn’t have documentation, she couldn’t go to a doctor to receive medical care. This, however, is a right for anyone in France and that is what we try to teach these women—to know their rights.”
Penelope works on staff at ABDF and has helped hundreds of women like Lovely. Unlike her boss and fellow co-workers, however, Penelope was never a sex-worker, which made it rare that she was accepted into this world.
Eight years ago, Penelope was writing her Masters thesis on the “Consequences of Repression on Foreign Sex Workers” and was permitted to come on the bus for six months to observe and help for her research. Also very rare as, to this day, while ABDF has allowed some researchers like Penelope, they do not allow journalists, photographers, film crews or media of any kind on the bus. Mainly, so that the women can feel safe and not distressed by new faces.
Although spending more time in the office now, Penelope still works on the bus four times a week, which hits the streets eight times each week, day and night, for five hours or more at a time. Half of the staff on board are active, working prostitutes with specific medical training. They make the same rounds each time so women working the streets know where and when to find them—and they always go out to the woods.
The woods, or Bois de Vincennes and Bois de Boulogne, are two large public parks on the edge of Paris city where much of the prostitution has shifted to ever since the 2003 Law for Internal Security passed, effectively criminalizing sex workers. The law did this in that: While prostitution is not illegal in France, active and passive solicitation is.
It is in these large parks—more or less forests—where women meet clients in the woods and perform their business there, literally behind trees or in vehicles parked beside the parks. The bus passes through these woods every time, though, and has now added two other circuits to the largely more remote and dangerous Foret de Fontainebleau and Foret de St. Germain en Laye forests, 50 km outside of Paris.
“Most nights we see anywhere from 50-120 people and usually help 500 people every week in some way. Women, transgender or men; but mostly women. Some come quickly and don’t want to talk. They might take some condoms and lubricant and leave. But some come and want to talk for a half an hour. It’s also like a break from their work. After talking, we always ask them if they want to come to our office for more help since we have social workers, lawyers, a French school, medical help—anything they need, we have it.”
The bus also gives out a free handbook that Penelope and a co-worker wrote and created called Hustlers: Health and Freedom. Focusing mainly on Nigerian prostitutes (but for any woman) the book answers all the common FAQs that a street worker new to Paris might have, half of it detailing basic health issues, the other half detailing legal and protection rights in laymen’s terms. All of the information in Hustlers: Health and Freedom was also chosen and decided upon by Nigerian women and members of ABDF. Penelope stressed that it this group-process which is integral in every decision the organization makes.
Penelope explained that many times they are the only people that the women can talk to about their jobs. Many women have hidden this career from their families for decades. ABDF even lets their members use their mailing address for sensitive documents regarding their jobs. In essence, Penelope and the organization also help them protect their identities—their covert other-lives.
“It’s a really interesting job because I feel like I’m deep in something very secret. And it’s also very difficult to gain these people’s trust because normally they don’t talk to people that aren’t prostitutes like them because they are afraid of the judgment and stigma. But after eight years, I know them well and they know me.”
The shift to the woods has made the situation complicated. Because most sex workers are basically hiding from police in the forest, (to evade arrest for solicitation) everything has become much more clandestine than it was pre-2003. This gives the more violent clients, pimps/madams and human traffickers more power than they used to have previously, when sex workers could work in the city.
Like Lovely once did, the majority of new sex workers also don’t know their rights in France, and many of their madams and “sponsors” take advantage of this fact. The women are warned not to talk about their jobs, to learn French or get an education, to go to the police, and also not to talk with ABDF. This is perhaps the biggest problem that Penelope and the organization face: Informing the women.
In the office, Penelope introduced me to *Gloria, another young Nigerian woman who came to Paris through a sponsor that told her she would be working for a wealthy family as a nanny. When she arrived, she was met by a madam who informed her that, no, this was not the job she’d come for.
Gloria, just like Lovely and many other women whose “passage” to Europe was arranged by a sponsor have to pay for this passage, a price that’s grown to 50-70,000 Euros and is, usually, impossible to payoff. Trapped in a system of debt bondage, the women give all of their earnings to a madam, as Gloria once did before she went to the police and consequently, hid from her abusive madam.
Many of the girls that agree to this price also have no idea how much 50,000 Euros actually is, and the madams/sponsors know this. Most of these girls have no concept of the exchange rate and think the price is similar to the Nigerian Naira. And 50,000 Naira amounts to 220 Euros (a price that seems doable).
“A lot of women are scared and don’t want to come to ABDF,” said Gloria. “They’re scared of the madams who warn them not to learn French or speak to anyone. The madams know that if we go to school we’ll discover that other opportunities exist and they don’t want that. They’ve sent men to find and hurt me for going to French school and they’ve even threatened my family in Nigeria. But mostly, they’re scared of the Juju.”
About the Juju—Juju is the ritual ceremony that most Nigerian women make with the madam to keep the promise of paying back the “journey fee.” In this Juju ritual, head and pubic hair, nail clippings, and even menstrual blood are taken from the girls and kept by the madam. If the girls fail to hold up their end of the bargain, these effects are used in a ceremony to cast a bad spell on them—a belief that most of these women take very seriously.
Gloria assured me that she could talk to me now because she never actually made a promise with her old madam, thus was safe from the Juju.
“Many of these women are victims of human trafficking and don’t even know it,” said Penelope. “They don’t see the problem, but eventually they have a breaking point where they realize they can’t pay the money they owe and that’s when they realize they’re part of an unfair system. Until then, they believe that they owed their madam that huge amount of money when it really only costs the sponsor around 3,000 Euros, if that to coordinate it all. This is something I have to explain to them because usually the girls think that their sponsor—who a lot of times works in a team with the madam—is actually helping them. They don’t see the connection, and how it’s a big business.”
Not all the prostitutes that Penelope encounters, both on the bus or in the office, are victims of human trafficking and debt bondage. Many of the organization’s founding and present members fight for the right to choose sex-work.
“There are a lot of older women that are members in the organization that really like their job,” said Penelope. “I know a woman that’s still active at 82. They believe in the choice that they have to do this work and believe that it’s a useful service. Some of their clients could only have sex by paying and people like that need to have some kind of contact with humans—if they have to pay, then so be it.”
“They also provide some sort of sexual education too, because there are young people that come to them and think that it’s okay to be violent or insulting to women, but these sex workers teach them that you can’t treat women that way. They call the shots, not the men. So I really actually think that many of them are feminists in a way. They are strong women that face men and are not afraid.”
* * *
Lovely and Gloria are still prostitutes, but their lives look a whole lot different than they did shortly before they hopped on the bus.
After healing from the operation, Penelope helped Lovely get schooling to learn French. Penelope also wrote Lovely’s asylum letter, which is getting processed by the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless (OFPRA) right now. If, however, Lovely is not granted asylum, she can make an appeal, but if that’s rejected, she will be asked to leave the country.
While Lovely waits for these papers, she works in the street, but at least she gets to keep most of her money instead of paying an impossible debt—a huge change for her.
“I’m so happy now,” said Gloria in the office of ABDF, shaking her head. “I don’t have to work on the streets as much. Sometimes on the weekends I still do to pay my rent, but now I have options. I receive 500 Euros each month, [a French social benefit from the Revenu de solidarité active (RSA)] much of which I send to my mom in Africa. What makes me happy, though is that I have hope now. I’m finally confident that very soon I’m leaving the streets. But now, even if the police approaches me, I don’t have to run because I have documents. This is the biggest change.”
Penelope has informed the two women that they could speak up and complain about being victims of trafficking, but both do not want to. They still fear the consequences of talking too much, whether from the juju, or a past madam.
The bus finds new women in Paris that have traveled lengths as far as Lovely and Gloria, every week. The age range shrinks every year, and some of the women are now bringing over younger girls to pay for their own debts when they arrive.
But thankfully there’s a route where those journeys can hopefully collide. A place where newcomers and old can hop on and rest their feet, get some protection, learn about their rights, or even discover a way out.