Josiane Tety Prunelle (photographed above) works for Bléty, a non-governmental sex worker-led organisation that was founded in Abidjan, the economic capital of the Ivory Coast. In the local language, Bléty means ‘hope’.
Josiane described herself as an activist for sex workers’ rights. The photograph of her above signifies a lot to her. She said, “I am looking out at the horizon, which represents a world of hope that the life and living conditions of sex workers will get better someday.”
- What is the legal context of sex work in your region?
Josiane told NSWP that in the Ivory Coast, sex work is not illegal but there are many laws surrounding sex work that make it impossible for sex workers to work legally. “There is no clause in the Ivory Coast law that says sex work is illegal, but it is illegal to solicit for the purposes of prostitution,” she said. If a sex worker is found guilty of solicitation, they can receive up to a 3-year prison sentence. Third parties are also criminalised in the Ivory Coast. Being a sex worker is defined under the law as a ‘breach of morality’.
The Ivory Coast also has a law to make sure everyone dresses and behaves in a ‘traditional way’. Sometimes sex workers are charged for not dressing ‘normally’ or like other people in society. Sometimes sex workers are charged with kissing in public. Josiane said, “all activities and behaviours that could offend someone are illegal, it could be kissing in public, it is all about morality”.
- What organisations are you currently involved in and what are the priority areas that these organisations work in? Tell us a bit about your activism/work specifically.
Josiane is one of the founding members of Bléty and she is the current Executive Director of the organisation. The organisation was founded in 2007, and before becoming the Executive Director, she was president of the Board of Directors.
As the Executive Director, Josiane coordinates and supervises all of Bléty’s activities. She also lobbies politicians, legislators, the police, and residents to change attitudes about sex work.
Bléty has three domains of activities:
- Fight HIV in sex work communities;
- The promotion of sex workers’ rights;
- And finally, the empowerment of people, with an emphasis on women, who work in the sex industry.
Bléty has 7 paid staff and over 35 volunteers. The majority of staff and volunteers are sex workers.
Josiane gave NSWP an example of some of her organisation’s activism. A few years ago Bléty organised a conference with sex workers, police officers, the military, and other security personnel. Josiane and other sex workers spoke about what made sex workers vulnerable to violence and developed recommendations to reduce violence against sex workers.
“We invited decision-makers in their own domain, and we exchanged information with them. We were able to come up with recommendations for them and for sex workers on how to prevent violence against sex workers. Since then, things have changed, even if some violence does continue. Violence against sex workers is a huge problem here. Violence from perpetrators and also violence from the police,” said Josiane.
Some of the recommendations for people in uniforms included:
- To do outreach with sex workers, be empathetic, educate them about their rights and obligations;
- Patrol more often;
- Break the climate of mistrust between sex workers and those in uniform;
- Only go to sex work areas to provide services, not to arrest sex workers;
- Create a focal point in the sex work community.
Some of the recommendations for sex workers included:
- Avoid explicit solicitation;
- Dress decently;
- Don’t harass non-sex workers;
- Obey the laws;
- Have phone numbers handy to denounce all forms of abuse from people in uniform;
- Have community members act as liaisons between people in uniform and other sex workers.
- How did you become involved with sex worker rights activism? What issues or people inspired you?
Many years ago, Josiane was a client at a clinic for HIV testing and treatment for sex workers. Through her experiences there, she met many sex workers and slowly, she built relationships with them. Josiane told NSWP that many sex workers at the clinic, including herself, did not understand what was happening. The clinic did not explain what the tests did and what the treatment options were. “We got the idea to get together and do it and offer it ourselves. We wanted answers to our questions. We wanted to support each other to face the sickness. To create a support group also,” Josiane said.
- What were the biggest events or challenges you’ve worked on in the past? E.g. opposing or campaigning for a law; organising an event; running an organisation …?
Josiane told NSWP that before Bléty was formed, HIV testing and treatment was not accessible to sex workers in Abidjan. It was necessary to go to a clinic to get tested for STIs. Josiane told NSWP sex workers were not comfortable going to the clinic. The clinic itself was located in a neighbourhood that was heavily stigmatised. If sex workers went there, people assumed they were living with HIV. Sex workers did not want to go to the clinic because people knew it was a clinic for the testing and treatment of HIV. “Even if a sex worker is only being tested, people assumed they were living with HIV. As a result, very few sex workers were being tested,” said Josiane, “the real challenge is that sex workers were not being tested”.
“We were clients at a clinic back in 2002-2003,” said Josiane, “that was in charge of STI and HIV testing. There was a lot of stuff happening at the clinic that we didn’t understand. So we got a group of sex workers together and formed a coalition so that we could be strong enough to ask the questions we needed answers to. We wanted to face the disease together.”
Eventually Josiane and the other founding members of Bléty decided to form their own sex worker-led organisation in 2007. Since 2011, they have increased the rates of testing of sex workers in Abidjan because they bring STI testing kits to the areas where sex workers work and test them right away. Unfortunately, Bléty does not offer HIV treatment, but they have developed positive relationships with clinics that offer treatment and often refer sex workers to these clinics if they need treatment.
A second challenge experienced by Bléty was very recent. In October to December of 2014 there was a big wave of violence against sex workers in the Adjamé commune, an area with over 500 sex workers. The general population surrounds this community and they wanted sex workers to leave the area. “They wanted the girls to leave,” Josiane said, “and were violent. The police were not able to do anything. Bléty got all the community leaders, religious leaders, youth leaders, and women who worked in the area leaders together to train them on sex workers’ rights. This stopped the violence. Today, those who were the perpetrators before are now the allies. They tell us when other people are violent towards sex workers”.
Bléty also trained people at the police station to better serve sex workers when they experience violence. Now the police take violence against sex workers more seriously and sex workers know who was trained and reach out to them. “Now sex workers always ask to see the person who was trained by Bléty,” Josiane added.
- What do you think will be the biggest challenges for your organisation/sex workers in your country in the future?
“The biggest challenge will be the decriminalisation of sex work”, said Josiane. Sex work is not illegal in the Ivory Coast, but the laws are very vague and because of that there is a lot of abuse. The laws make sex workers more vulnerable to violence.
Another challenge is access to health services, particularly family planning. “We also need to make sure we address the needs of the children of sex workers,” said Josiane. Bléty needs to address all of these issues, but for now, they are focusing on sex workers.
- How do you carry out your activism e.g. what forms of social media and/or strategies do you use? (protests, social media, legislation, e.t.c.) to further the cause you advocate for?
Bléty’s main method of carrying out activism is face-to-face meetings with government and non-government officials. “We mainly do lobbying. We ask to talk to people. If there are attitudes that hurt, or stigma, we try to understand and respond to it. We are just starting to use social media, but we mainly do protests, have press releases, and meet with people. We lobby with the leaders,” she said.
- Do you have one message for the sex worker rights movement? Or one message for people outside of the movement?
“At a local level, the fight is not easy. We must never lower our fists. We need to continue to fight for sex workers’ rights. This fight is not for us, it is for our community and those who cannot fight,” said Josiane.