Research design of the ethnographic study on Nigerian and Ghanaian women working in Brussels’ red-light district

Table of Contents:

Research aim

This project is a descriptive, ethnographic, qualitative study that attempts to gain a better understanding of the Nigerian and Ghanaian women working in the red-light district in Brussels while using ethnographic methods that focus on the experiences of the women. The women are considered experts of their own lives and all the data is based on their subjective experiences and interpretations. The research aims are:

  • 1 To describe, through ethnographic fieldwork, the working experiences and interactions of Nigerian and Ghanaian women in prostitution in the red-light district of the carrés.
  • 2 To identify the difficulties that the women face and understand how they deal with them.
  • 3 To formulate recommendations towards the development of adequate interventions and policies for the well-being of the women.

This leads to subsequent research questions: How do Nigerian and Ghanaian women who work in prostitution experience the red-light district of the carrés? What are the difficulties they are faced with, and how do they manage them? Which changes could potentially be made to increase their well-being?


Data was collected using a multi-method qualitative approach, predominantly through ethnographic fieldwork that consists of detailed observations, informal interviews, and a focus group. In addition, these findings were enriched through interviews with stakeholders,

Research design 15 document analyses, and interviews with two victims of human trafficking who hitherto worked in the area.

2.2.1 Ethnography

To understand certain social dynamics, it is fundamental to listen to the stories of their protagonists and observe society from their point of view. Using ethnographic methods, that “enable a process of representation of those who have often have little voice” (Sanders, 2004, p. 1707) prioritizes the perspective of the women. It demonstrates a willingness to include them in the policy-making process and affirms “the importance of the ‘lived reality’ (in all its diversity) of all those involved in sex work as a basis for theory, practice” (Campbell & O’Neill, 2006, p. x). Through foregrounding subjective experiences, qualitative research highly necessarily challenges theories on prostitution and migration that are ideologically and politically charged subjects.

It is the face that adds individuality, distinguishes the individual from the mass, where she is only a number. Face separates, stands out, and prevents overgeneralization, which can only happen when one does not see the variance between individual experiences.

(Persak & Vermeulen, 2014. p. 14)

Finally, the informal and marginal quality of red-light districts requires an initially cautious attitude to find context-specific methods that work in a certain community. Ethnography offers scope for such a flexible and holistic approach, which is necessary to grasp the complexities, reveal unexpected truths, and defy pre-existing beliefs. Attributing a kind of “normality” to the field from the assumption that “prostitution is characterized by a variety of forms, working conditions and possibilities for agency, resistance, and negotiation” (Persak & Vermeulen, 2014, p. 14), we listened to the experiences of the women. Examining how they navigate their particularly challenging surroundings helps us understand how the women give meaning to their environment and what informs their decision-making (Agustin, 2006; Campbell & O’Neill, 2006).

2.2.2 Stakeholder interviews

Between October 2018 and May 2019, semi-structured interviews were held with the following stakeholders/members of the advisory board to gather existing knowledge from those with on-the-ground experience: representatives from Espace P, the cell Administrative Police of Schaerbeek, PAG-AS A, the Local Police Brussels North (including the Human Trafficking unit), the Human Trafficking Section (Africa Unit) of the Federal Police, and those in charge of projects on prostitution and citizen participation - Schaerbeek Urban Prevention Programme.

2.2.3 Participants

The fieldwork was conducted in the red-light area of the carrés district between January and June 2019. The researchers started by spending time in the area to address key persons and explain the research. They distributed pamphlets which included their contact details and a brief explanation of the project. Both researchers were always together on the field and wore yellow vests with the university logo so that their role as researchers was clear. The fieldwork was done approximately twice a week, either during the day or in the evening.

Participants were mainly recruited based on their willingness to take part in the research and were addressed directly in their windows or, on a few occasions, in shops and bars in the area. Additionally, some women were recruited through snowball sampling, which in this case happened via referrals within the community. The researchers sometimes distributed condoms. These were always a welcome “gift”, which sometimes incited conversations that we believe did not interfere with the neutrality of the researchers.1 The use of Nigerian Pidgin, and on some occasions Yoruba and Twi, by a member of the research team was very significant in the process of establishing contact with the women, and it literally “opened doors”. Finally, some events that took place in the carrés triggered participation, and the injustices which the women experienced during that period made them more open and willing to speak out. While the researchers met and introduced themselves to at least 70 women working in the area, a total of 38 women were interviewed, and Table 2.1 shows their profiles. This is important, as it reveals some of the diversity within the group.

Outside the field setting, interviews were conducted with two women who were recognized as victims of trafficking and were residents in a shelter of one of the relevant non-governmental organizations (NGOs). They had worked for eight months to two years in the red-light district of the carrés since 2017. During the interviews, they described their knowledge of the area without going explicitly into their personal stories or trafficking experiences.

Table 2.1 Profiles of 38 women interviewed

Country of origin

Work shift

Location of the carré

Age group'

Ghana 8

Night 13



18 30 yrs old


Nigeria 29

Day 25



31^45 yrs old


Uncertain 1



45+ yrs old


1 This is the estimated age of the participants as we never asked the women for their exact age.

In the last phase of writing this book, we discussed the recommendations with some of the participants. Although their high mobility only made it possible to encounter less than half of the women whom the researchers knew and had interviewed, their feedback was very informative and led to the adjustment of some aspects of the recommendations.

2.2.4 Field notes

The data that was collected from the fieldwork resulted in comprehensive field notes of detailed observations and interviews. None of the interviews were recorded, and after the first few the process of taking field notes while on the field was discarded unless the curtains of the window were closed, and passers-by could not look in or see what was going on. The notes were written down by the researchers after each fieldwork session, which ensured that there were always two readings and perspectives on what happened or what was said on the field. The interviews were not recorded because the women who were already sceptical of the interview process would not have permitted them. The researchers also recognized that the process of taking notes during the interviews may have endangered the participants if they were seen by others “giving information”, which the researchers then “wrote down”. Thereby supporting the work of other researchers, who argue that recording an interview or taking notes mid-interview in places where passers-by can see and misconstrue what is going on, could cause participants to become uncomfortable thereby creating an unpleasant atmosphere (de Wildt, 2016; Cwikel & Hoban, 2005).

Interactions with the women mostly took place inside the carrés and were relatively concise and to the point, to avoid wasting valuable working time for the women. The researchers also paid attention to the women’s non-verbals (some of which were cultural) and were able to recognize when to say or do certain things like end the interview or take a break. For example, there were instances when the researchers had to leave participants during the interview because a client either came in, or was lurking outside, and the woman’s eyes kept looking in that direction. The women appreciated this sensitivity and respect for their time, and in those cases continued the interviews later on. The informal interviews and follow-up conversations were directed by a list of questions which were constantly adapted during the course of the research, and the exchanges ranged from short talks to more profound research-participant relationships (with many follow-up conversations). Some of the women kept in touch with the researchers outside the field through telephone conversations and messages.

Additionally, one focus group took place early in the morning with several women who worked at night and had just finished their shift. The group setting was useful for obtaining information about their feelings and opinions while working during the night shift, which the women all agreed was the most dangerous shift. It also revealed unexpected insights into the many differences between the women themselves.

While there, the researchers also came into contact with other individuals who frequented the area but did not belong to the target group (i.e. they did not work in prostitution in the area and/or were not of African descent). Rather, they were people conducting business in the area, residents, Belgian women in prostitution, etc. These encounters (14 of them) happened as a “by-product” that was often triggered by a curiosity about what the researchers were doing wandering around the area. They offered additional perspectives and further fuelled the understanding of the area, and in several cases, helped to secure access to the target group.

2.2.5 Analysis

All collected data were coded according to thematic analysis to identify recurrent themes, patterns, and structures in the dataset.2 This inductive process of signification allowed us to stay as close to the women’s words as possible. Additionally, through a process of triangulation (as a result of the multi-method approach of data collection) the experiences of the participants were held up against existing knowledge and general theories to increase the depth, quality, and scope of the results.

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