Sex workers in northern Brussels demand more police on streets
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Sex workers in northern Brussels demand more police on streets

Illustration image of police in Antwerp. Credit: Stad Antwerpen

Sub-Saharan sex workers in Brussels’ North Quarter are calling for more street patrols to ensure a rapid response in the event of an attack, a recent study shows.

In light of the death of Nigerian sex worker Eunice Osayande, who was brutally murdered by a 17-year-old client in 2018, an ethnographic study on sex work in the area by the University of Ghent (UGent) was commissioned by the city of Schaerbeek.

“We were interested in having an outside view of academics and above all to be able to hear the testimonies of these women,” the acting mayor of Schaerbeek, Cécile Jodogne, told Belga news agency.

For the study on sub-Saharan sex work, which really grew in the early 2000s, the two UGent researchers – Sarah Adeyinka (who herself is Nigerian) and Sophie Samyn – talked with 38 women, including 29 from Nigeria and 8 from Ghana.

The majority of Nigerian women in the neighbourhood come from Edo State – considered the centre of human trafficking in the country – and many arrived in Europe via networks and having paid off their “debts” to the traffickers.

Reluctance to approach police

The sex workers who were interviewed stressed that they faced violence on a regular basis, but especially at night, including robberies and beatings, which often resulted in injuries that left scars, and people trying to have unprotected sex with them.

The women also spoke of discriminatory attacks, often by young people, and the fact that they go unpunished, which in turn makes them feel unwelcome. They also highlighted that the neighbourhood they work in is often abandoned, making them feel more unsafe and adding to the risk.

They are often reluctant to call the police, either due to a lack of proper papers, or because they are unable to explain the problem due to the language barrier, which is why they are calling for more street patrols in the area to ensure a rapid response in the event of an attack.

According to reports from RTBF, the fact that one of the researchers was of Nigerian origin helped to break down the mistrust of the sex workers, as even the grassroots associations that help sex workers, such as Espace P or UTSOPI, have great difficulty gaining their trust.

The results of the study, that looked specifically into the experience of women near Rue des Plantes and Rue Linnés (where Osayande was murdered and situated between Schaerbeek and Saint-Josse-ten-Noode), were presented by the researchers at Schaerbeek city hall on Wednesday.

According to the researchers, the location of this area between two local administrations with different policies on prostitution, causes confusion and leads to an unregulated situation, whilst the structural neglect of the area and its inhabitants has an adverse effect on the sex workers.

More recognition needed

In response to the murder of the young sex worker, interim mayor Jodogne has begun work with the police and relevant actors on the ground to find solutions to the problem and the dangers faced by the women in this area.

However, the researchers warn that “no real change for women can be envisaged” if nothing changes in this environment because the marginalisation that characterises it does not translate into political influence.

In turn, this “allows the city to continue its policy of minimal involvement and tolerance of the status quo.”

Recently, it was announced a new street in Brussels would be named after Osayande to draw attention to all the women who became victims of human trafficking, sexual violence and femicide.

“Inclusive feminism is about the rights and struggles of women at every social rank. 42% of women between the ages of 16 and 69 have at least once experienced physical sexual violence,” said Ans Persoons, Alderman for Urban Planning responsible for toponymy.

“Among sex workers, the percentage is much higher. The struggle to bring these hallucinatory high figures down deserves more attention and urgency. And that is precisely why Eunice Osayande is being given a street today,” Persoons added.

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