Four challenges

After describing the experiences of the Nigerian and Ghanaian women in relation to the complex social-political context, we must now ask the question: what does this tell us? It is clear that the unsettling and chaotic context in which the women work presents numerous challenges to them. However, as we have discovered, the group of African women is not a homogenous one. Within this migrant group of women, there are different “generations” that relate to the host society and migrant community in distinct ways, and their well-being is subsequently conditioned by other priorities and interests. Nevertheless, we were able to identify certain “problems” that some or all women struggle with daily. In the following section, we will list the most prominent difficulties and examine how they successfully or unsuccessfully cope with them. Revealing these dynamics is important when thinking about possibilities for change or gaps in support services. We can identify four main difficulties:

4.4.1 Security

The public-private character of window prostitution makes women extra vulnerable to violence because sexual exchanges happen inside, where the women are mostly alone with a client. The windows that offer them the visibility necessary to solicit clients connect the women with their direct surroundings: the streets, residents, and passers-by, etc. The women described countless accounts of harassment, thefts, and violence, both inside and outside their carrés. As mentioned earlier, the main concern of all participants is that they feel unsafe in the area and that they feel insufficiently protected by the police whom they don’t always understand (language barrier) or fully trust, mainly because of their slow responsiveness and little presence. They subsequently don’t report the violence which they experience and sometimes turn to other actors for protection.

The women have developed tactics and strategies to protect themselves: they keep each other company, they keep “weapons”, they pay for protection, they scare clients away, they fight back, etc. and these are effective ways to prevent robberies or rape from taking place. However, they cannot prevent all forms of violence and the subjective experience of insecurity creates a lot of stress for them. For a group that normally prefers to stay away from any kind of authority, the plea for police presence in the streets is remarkably strong.

4.4.2 Health-related issues

Some of the women are unable to access basic health care services. For women in prostitution, which in its nature implies a lot of health risks, access to health care is primordial. Most of the women did not understand how the health care system works in Belgium, especially those who do not have legal residence status in Belgium. Although many of them had met the Doctor from Espace P, not all of the

Findings 81 women knew about the organization or made use of their services. Also, when referred to other services (like a general practitioner), not all of the women followed up on the referral. While this may be linked to language barriers, we also hypothesize that it is partly cultural. The women mentioned that in Nigeria it is unusual for someone to go to the hospital alone when they are ill as they are usually accompanied by a family member or friend. The information on reproductive health and safe sex is also necessary for the women because many of them are not educated enough in this area (T. Tylova, personal communication, February 6, 2019). Within the Nigerian and Ghanaian community, the women help and inform each other. However, the information that is passed on is not always correct and there is no guarantee that everybody is sufficiently cared for (due to high mobility and internal exploitation).

4.4.3 Work-related stress

One of the main issues that the women were preoccupied with was money. They complained that the rent was too high and that there were not enough clients to earn the amount of money that they wanted, and some expressed the difficulty of making ends meet (covering their monthly expenses). We believe this contributes to a competitive atmosphere and tensions within the group as the women (sometimes literally) have to fight for their spaces and the clients. The findings also showed that certain regulations and political decisions caused concerns as the confusion and uncertainty about the future of the area made some women very angry. Finally, two other factors that contribute to their stress “at work”, but are more related to their migratory condition, are the lack of access to other types of work and the fear of deportation by those who are undocumented.

4.4.4 Discrimination and (perceived) stigma

Closely related to the security issue, there is also the more subjective experience of “not being welcome”. Most of the participants gave at least one or more examples of situations or events that occurred in which they experienced stigma or a form of discrimination, including their encounters with the police.

The most upsetting experience for the women is the harassment by children and young people, who throw eggs at them or break their windows. These attacks by children go unpunished and leave profound impressions on the women. The women also revealed their internal conflict about working in prostitution, and several of them expressed feelings of guilt and shame about it as prostitution is not considered a respectable profession in Nigerian society. It is important to note, however, that a minority among the women are tackling the stigma by joining a collective that supports the rights of sex workers.

The material setting in which the red-light district is located also fuels the experience of “not being welcome”. Drawing on Hayward, Di Ronco rightly labels the area as a perfect example of a “space of deprivation” (2014, p. 149), located on the margin of the urban and political space and neglected by institutions. Most of these women find comfort in the Nigerian and Ghanaian community that offers company and familiarity, especially those who feel less “at home” in Belgium. The transnational networks of Nigerian and Ghanaian communities in other parts of Europe make it possible for the women to move easily across borders.

Notes

  • 1 Eunice was a 23-year-old Nigerian woman who was murdered in June 2018 outside her carré.
  • 2 The use of verbatim quotations in this book allows for the most direct and unfiltered access to the voices of the women. However, interviews were never recorded, and the quotes used here are taken from the field notes. Some sentences are literal recollections, while others merely rehash the essence of what was said. To improve comprehensibility, the texts are somewhat adjusted and sometimes translated into English (mostly from Nigerian Pidgin), staying as close as possible to the original. Finally, all names are fictionalized, and some personal information was omitted to guarantee the full anonymity of the participants.
  • 3 There is also a presence of residents that have a Roma background, but it is unclear how the women perceive them.
  • 4 The Edo (Bini) ethnic group traditionally does not socially accept prostitution (see Alobo & Ndifon. 2014).
  • 5 This not only hurts but touching someone's hair without permission is also culturally very inappropriate for black women. As expressed by Mokoena: “do I let people touch my hair and under what circumstances? The question ‘can I touch it' becomes one of the most awkward social moments and can break relationships before they start” (2018, para. 2). Also see Dash (2006).
  • 6 According to a controversial new decree in Italy, issued by the government on September 24, 2018, humanitarian protection was abolished. Since 2011, many Nigerians who came through Libya obtained this type of protection, as did some of the Nigerian women who work in the carrés. It is not clear what will happen when it is time to renew their permit (every one or two years).
  • 7 The issue of rent is a complex and contradictory one. It is not clear how much rent the house owners ask for a carré, because some of the sum is

Findings 83 handed over unofficially (Myria. 2018; J. Hendriks & F. Vandelook. personal communication, November 10, 2018). More importantly, it is not clear what the standard should be of a reasonable rent. In Belgian law, asking a disproportionate rent is criminalized. House owners argue that the space is used commercially, which allows them to demand more rent. Was subletting first or the increase in rent? What incited the other?

  • 8 Tylova made a distinction between two main groups of women in her ethnographic research in the area (2014), those from Ghana and those from Nigeria. Within the group of Nigerians, she highlights the diversity of experiences.
  • 9 By 2019 the municipality had bought a total of 21 buildings of which the ground floor was used as a carré (MdK, 2019).

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