Contextualizing the Prostitution Debate

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Rising public concerns that people in Liberia are catching hell is evident. On any normal day of the week in Monrovia, depending on where you go, hundreds of youths can be seen patrolling the streets as though in search of some lost possessions; others can be seen street hawking, locked in discussions at Hatai shops, playing street football when and where ever Monrovia’s ever snarling traffic presents the opportunity to romp.

But this is all during the day. At sunset, as darkness envelopes the city, its various night spots, drinking bars and entertainment centers light up. Scores of virtually idle youths descend on those spots in search of adventure and money from freewheelers looking for fun. And it is at these spots the interested visitor can find himself virtually face to face with an array of young girls, mostly teenage, hustling potential clients in search of cheap thrills at real bargain prices. And the commodity obviously on sale is their bodies, of course.

To ensure they get the best offers, they parade themselves in a variety of mostly chic outfits exposing as much of their bodies as possible and they range in age and body size, from “super slim” as the expression suggests, “tenten”, meaning the very young ones, pre or early teens; “big sis” early to mid-twenties; and “big ma” the older ones aged 30 and above.

And it appears their numbers keep increasing by the day so much so that a once nocturnal activity confined to certain areas is now out in the open where very young girls and boys can be seen openly soliciting customers for sex. This has apparently claimed the attention of members of the Legislature, as reported in the July 12 edition of the Daily Observer, some of who are advocating for tougher laws to address the situation which, in their view, is fast going out of hand.

In the story headlined “Makeshift Motels, Teenage Prostitution Anger Lawmakers”, members of the House of Representatives, frowning on what they see as the increasing rate of teenage prostitution and makeshift brothels, have voted to summon the Minister of Gender, Children and Social Protection as well as the Inspector-General of Police to provide explanation on the increasing rate of rape and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence and, of course, prostitution involving teenagers and underaged children.

According to the writer of the story, Daily Observer Legislative reporter, Leroy Sonpon the vote was prompted by communication from Representative Moimah Briggs Mensah on “offenses against public morality” which, according to her, violates Chapter 18, Sub-sections 1-9 of Liberian Penal Code.

Rep. Mensah told the House Plenary that she had observed that scores of teenage and school-going girls were being taken into a makeshift “lappa-be-door” on 14th Street for brief sexual encounters called “short time”. She is therefore calling for either the criminalization or decriminalization of prostitution as a safeguard measure intended to keep young girls and boys off the streets.

According to Liberia’s Penal Code, offenses against Public Morality include promoting prostitution, facilitating prostitution and patronizing prostitution, which constitutes a felony. Others are dissemination of obscene materials, indecent exposure, loitering to solicit sexual activity, illegal gambling business, abuse of corpse and cruelty to animals.

The Daily Observer, adding its voice to the debate, holds the view that the increase in prostitution in Liberia bears a direct link to the rise in poverty occasioned by falling real incomes, inequitable and very highly skewed distribution of national income, high and chronic unemployment, unequal access to justice and opportunities for self-actualization and, above all, bad governance including what appears to be increasing criminalization of the state.

From a gender perspective, the rise of prostitution can be understood within a context of power relationships. Men generally tend to be more educated unlike their female counterparts, according to the 2013 Liberia Demographic Health Survey report. For example, according to the report, “payment for sexual intercourse was higher among men with secondary and higher education and men in the fourth and highest wealth quintiles relative to men with no education or primary education and those in lower wealth quintiles, although differences are small”.

Further, according to the report, “ten percent of men reported ever paying for sex; 5 percent reported paying for sex at least once during the 12 months preceding the survey. Men age 25-29 (14 percent), divorced/separated/widowed men (19 percent), and men living in Sinoe (14 percent) were most likely to have ever paid for sex”, according to the report.

Reasons why 14 percent of men living in Sinoe may be attributed mainly to the logging industry from the bush to the port of Greenville from where the logs are shipped. Endemic poverty amongst women in that region is without doubt a key driver of women into prostitution, mainly as a coping strategy to ward off the effects of grinding poverty.

Members of the Legislature should remind themselves that the illegal passage into law of 66 bogus concession agreements that benefit a few and impoverish the vast majority, will have the end effect of driving more people deeper into poverty traps to escape from which could prove daunting if not impossible. Invariably, women, most of who are uneducated and unemployed with very little or no prospects of finding real employment, may find themselves driven into prostitution.

The onus is therefore on Government to create enabling conditions, which will serve to foster greater self-reliance of Liberian women by getting them out of poverty traps and thereby reduce the propensity to resort to prostitution as a coping mechanism. One sure way of doing so is to curb runaway corruption which is sapping away the lifeblood of the nation.

The expressed concerns of female legislators troubled by the rise in prostitution is, perhaps, their emergence into reality. Now they are no longer spectators and, as Brazilian educator and Liberation theologian Paulo Freire puts it, they “have renounced expectancy and are now demanding intervention”. The nation awaits anxiously the outcome!

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