Deborah Guehi is the Founder of Actions sans Limite, a sex worker organization in northern Côte d’Ivoire. Ms. Guehi has been fighting to protect the human rights of sex workers since 2009.
I had been working as a sex worker for almost ten years when, in 2009, a client encouraged me to organize sex workers in our town and fight for our rights. “Together you have power,” he assured me. He made this suggestion after I told him how utterly powerless I felt in the face of the constant abuses sex workers suffered from clients, police, and even healthcare workers.
In Boundiali, the predominantly Muslim town in northern Côte d’Ivoire where I live, stigma against sex workers is very strong. Even though demand for our services is plentiful, most people see us as dirty and unworthy.
I was in my early twenties when the death of my father threw my family into economic despair as we lost his teacher’s salary. Soon after I discovered that I was pregnant, and as the oldest child in our family, I had to find a way to provide for my mother and younger siblings—and my own unborn child. In our economically depressed region, finding work is a real challenge and sex work was one of the only options available to me.
Acting on my client’s suggestion, I founded a small sex worker organization called Action sans Limite (Action without Limit, ASAL).
At ASAL, we exchanged experiences and discussed strategies to keep ourselves and each other safe. We provided each other with emotional and other support. We began raising awareness about HIV and other infectious diseases. Our collaboration lowered, to some extent, our sense of vulnerability.
However, even as we became better at helping ourselves, government agencies, such as police and healthcare providers, remained more of a threat than a partner in our battle for our health and security. Reporting a case of violence against a sex worker to the police often only led to further abuse as police demanded money from us or told us we deserved the abuses we faced.
In the last few years, Côte d’Ivoire has increasingly made fighting stigma and discrimination a priority in its HIV and TB response.
One remarkable training conducted as part of these efforts, drastically changed the relationship between sex workers and police and healthcare workers.
In 2021, Alliance Cote d’Ivoire, a leading public health organization, organized a so-called LILO training in Boundiali. LILO stands for “Looking In, Looking Out”. In contrast with other training I’ve attended, LILO focuses not so much on imparting knowledge or skills as on looking inside yourself to examine your personal views and prejudices.
For this particular training, Alliance Côte d’Ivoire brought together about 15 participants, including several police officers, a few healthcare workers, a sex worker (me), a person from the LGBTQI community, and a person who uses drugs.
At the start of the training, we were instructed to tell the others our names but not to share anything further about our background. We were all mixed together without really knowing who our neighbors were. Over the course of several days, the facilitators took us on an intense journey of personal discovery with our fellow participants, building, through laughter and tears, a real sense of camaraderie as we explored our own attitudes and learned about prejudice and the harm it causes.
Toward the end of the training, we were eventually told to reveal our background to the group. I told the story of how I ended up doing sex work.
While in the past the admission that I was a sex worker was almost always met with disapproval, at this training there was no judgment. Quite to the contrary, I received nothing but praise from the rest of the group for my courage.
After our exploration of humanity and prejudice the previous days, my fellow participants saw me as a human being who had just told her deeply personal and difficult life story. For them, the fact that I was also a sex worker didn’t change anything about my humanity anymore. It was a truly empowering moment for me.
But what came next was even more remarkable.
That sense of shared humanity and solidarity from fellow participants was not just a fleeting moment at the end of an intense training. It has persisted and allowed us to build a true partnership with police officers and healthcare workers in ways that were previously unthinkable. After the training session, we could contact people in the police department and in healthcare institutions who understood us and were our allies—people who were ready to intervene on our behalf.
Suddenly, we were able to file complaints about abuses, enlist police officers to help resolve disputes, and access non-judgmental medical treatment for sex workers who had suffered physical violence. And it wasn’t just these LILO participants whose attitudes had changed. As they shared their experiences with colleagues, attitudes gradually began to shift more broadly. I don’t want to suggest that that stigma against sex workers has disappeared or that we are always treated well by police or health workers—certainly not. But we now have recourse in a way we never had before. We have access not just to the participants of our LILO training but to an entire network of LILO participants whom we can ask for advice and assistance. The training has also allowed us to improve our communication with people in the communities where we live.
Thanks to the LILO training, many sex workers in Boundiali feel empowered to fight for our rights and our health, and we know that we now have partners in that fight inside our police department and healthcare system.
* Since 2017, Côte d’Ivoire has been part of the Global Fund’s flagship “Breaking Down Barriers” initiative which aims to remove stigma and discrimination and other human rights-related barriers to HIV, TB and malaria services. More recently, the country also joined the Global Partnership for Action to Eliminate all Forms of HIV-related Stigma and Discrimination and is partnering with UNAIDS, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and PEPFAR to coordinate and scale up programs to reduce stigma and discrimination.