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Two small phones in hand, Aïssatou * manages its clients remotely. She has “Bought a chip at the start of the coronavirus crisis, because we can no longer look for customers in the evening on the street, nor in nightclubs or bars, all closed”. Housed in a building in a popular district of Dakar, the 35-year-old woman sits on a mattress on the floor, covered with a pink and red bedspread. She shares two rooms rented monthly with Esther *, Fatoumata * and Colette *. All of them are sex workers, like her.
Since the start of the Covid-19 crisis, Aïssatou has paid 15,000 CFA francs (23 euros) each week for her number to appear on Facebook pages or dedicated online sites. “But it’s hard, I went from a dozen customers a day, to just two or three”, complains the professional, whose income has dropped to the point where she is now struggling to bring money home. A situation all the more delicate since she has five children of whom she takes care of alone and who know nothing about her activities.
So, in their small rooms on the second floor, the four women help each other to make ends meet. “We share everything. It was Aïssatou who gave me this client, because we all have to work “, says Colette, readjusting her orange and blue boubou. For 3,000 CFA francs (4.50 euros), she has just spent ten minutes with a young Senegalese man who can be seen disappearing in the doorway.
No more tourists
In Senegal, prostitution is not prohibited. Only minors of 21 years who practice it, soliciting and pimping are penalized. In the brothel where the Aïsattou and his sisters practice, the regulars usually came after midnight. Now they are forced to pass between 11 a.m. and 9 p.m., a rate imposed by the curfew, extended to 11 p.m. since June 5.
Since the crisis, girls can no longer count on foreign customers, “Who pay better and offer you transportation, drinks and meals”, laments Fatoumata. With the closure of the air borders, no tourist returns to the country of 16 million inhabitants.
In Senegal, a state of emergency was declared on March 23 by the President of the Republic, Macky Sall. The country now has more than 6,200 cases and nearly 100 deaths. Senegal’s gross domestic product (GDP) is expected to grow 1.1% in 2020, compared to 5.3% in 2019, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
“Because they live in precariousness and promiscuity, sex workers are particularly exposed to the coronavirus”says Lala Maty Sow, a former prostitute and president of the And Soppeku association, which she co-founded with colleagues in 2009. “All the activities are stopped, but we have created a WhatsApp group to provide psychological support to our 350 members and pass on the instructions on the new barrier gestures”explains Mme Sow.
Mask and condom
These rules are more or less applied in the brothel in Dakar. “Before entering our room, I ask customers to wash their hands”, explains Fatoumata, pointing to the green basin installed at the entrance to the small corridor that leads to the two rooms where the four women exercise. “I also give them a mask which they must keep during the sexual act, even if the men resist and say that they cannot breathe”breathes the young woman, tight in her short tight blue skirt and white tank top.
Fatoumata knows how to coax customers to use false eyelashes to force them to wear a mask and condom. “And the mask is good. We no longer have to accept blowjobs or kiss on the mouth “, exclaims the young woman of 35 years with a frank laugh. She started prostitution in 2011, after having been a hairdresser for years. Recently, she has also made her colleagues aware of health issues.
Above the bed where she receives clients, Fatoumata proudly displays the diploma received after training with the association And Soppeku. A certificate which she does not hesitate to exhibit in front of the police who go up to check her situation. The young woman is in good standing, holder of the compulsory health book to legally exercise sex work in Senegal.
And it is thanks to intermediaries like Fatoumata that the association And Soppeku was able to distribute 200 food and hygiene kits in several cities of the country. “Many women came to me because they had problems feeding themselves and their families”, says Lala Maty Sow.
“The health ministry also donated masks, liquid soap and awareness posters, but that was only a third of what we used in one day”, added the president, who welcomed the relaxation of restrictive measures with the opening of intercity transport and restaurants.
* The first names have been changed at the request of the persons concerned.