An introduction to the ethnographic study of Nigerian and Ghanaian women working in Brussels’ red-light district


Two events in 2018 temporarily directed national attention towards the red-light district of the carrés behind Brussels North train station. First, the trial of the alleged “Mama Leather” was held, publicly exposing violent forms of exploitation and trafficking that were taking place in the area (De Staandard, 2018; HLN, 2018a). Second, a young Nigerian woman was murdered in front of her carré by an under-aged resident of the area (HLN, 2018b; DeMorgen, 2018). The events were overt signs of a degenerative situation and triggered questions about the safety of the women and the quality of life in the area. However, as one woman told us: “soldier go, soldier come, na barracks go remain”, a popular saying in Nigeria meaning, “no matter what happens and how many changes occur, some things will remain the same, immovable and unchanging”.

An estimated 150 African women stand behind the windows of the carrés today in an area that is characterized by outdated and neglected buildings, criminal activities (drugs, physical violence, trafficking, money laundering, etc.), nuisance (cars, noise, pollution), and the conflict between residential and commercial aspects of the neighbourhood (Brussels Hoofdstedelijk Gewest, 2015). While there is still a small presence of older (60+) French and Belgian women, the majority of the women working there are of Nigerian descent, a minority is of Ghanaian descent.

The new policy on prostitution of the municipality of Schaerbeek (2011 ) provides more assistance to the women and works towards their autonomy from pimps and human trafficking networks. This approach is said to have led to substantial improvements in the salons of the Aarschotstraat/rue d’Aerschot, the other red-light district nearby, but has failed to solve the grievances of the area of the carrés.1 Actors

“present” in the area (including social workers, the administrative police of the commune, and the local and federal police units) have expressed the difficulties they have in establishing trust relationships with the African women and in fully understanding what is going on. Next to cultural and linguistic barriers, the existence of institutional distrust often present in groups on the margins adds another layer of complexity. It is in this context that the Sub-Saharan’ Women In Prostitution: Schaerbeek Ethnographic Research (SW1PSER) project came into being. It was commissioned and financed by the municipality of Schaerbeek and carried out by a Nigerian-Belgian research team (Sarah Adeyinka and Sophie Samyn) from Ghent University. The research was conducted between September 2018 and December 2019. A committee of several stakeholders met with the team regularly to provide insight and support to the researchers throughout the course of the project.

It is important to mention that this project was carried out within a limited time frame of one year as stipulated by the funders, which limited the time available for data collection and the amount of data collected and analysed. However, the importance of the research findings has already been demonstrated because the study enabled local actors to take steps in addressing some of the issues that we discovered and addressed. Also, we strongly believe that these findings have a global relevance, not only because the red-light district is embedded in a complex global web of inequality, migration, and sexualized racism that transcends the Brussels context, but also because of the movement of these women across borders and their work in prostitution in other European cities.

After the theoretical framework in the next paragraph, we take you through a short literature review of relevant themes on prostitution research. Thereafter, in Chapter 2 we explain the research design and data collection approach, with specific attention to the ethical considerations. Chapter 3 offers a historical contextualization of the area, focusing on legislation, the historical evolution of the red-light district of the carrés, Nigerian human trafficking networks, and the case of Ghanaian women. Chapter 4 presents our findings in four sections. The first three sections explore how the women navigate different realities: ( 1 ) the setting in which they work, (2) the migratory condition and the African community, and (3) the functioning of the red-light district of the carrés. They are based on the subjective accounts and heterogeneous experiences of the women and mirror the topics briefly discussed in the literature (prostitution and the city, prostitution, and migration and prostitution and policy). In the fourth section, four main challenges are identified. The conclusions in the last chapter lead to recommendations that may inform policy and practice working with these women.

None of this would have been possible without the very helpful input and feedback from the guidance committee and the various actors who set time aside to meet with us and support us.

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