In the spring of 2007, Lovely Osaro (not her real name) left Sokoto, Nigeria with a group of other migrants to make the dangerous overland journey through the Sahara Desert into Libya, where they would cross the Mediterranean toward Italy. Lovely, who came from a poor farming family, was 22 years old at the time and was supposed to be married to a much older man. It's customary in the region she comes from for women to be circumcised before marriage, which she did not want. So when a woman approached her in the local market and offered to "sponsor" her passage to Europe in order to escape this fate, Lovely agreed, and was smuggled, with 24 others, in a truck transporting goats and cattle to Niger.
"I didn't really have a plan," Lovely told me in a crowded café in Paris' 20th District. "I just figured that if I got to any place in Europe, I would be fine. It didn't matter which country."
Shortly before the Nigeria-Niger border, the truck broke down, and they had to walk the rest of the way into Niger. There wasn't nearly enough food and water for everyone, and Lovely recalls passing the bodies of others who had attempted the same journey, lying dead on the side of the road. The ground was so hot, that it burned their feet through the soles of their shoes.
By the time they got to Libya, there were 20 of them left. They eventually reached the coastal town of Zuwara, where Lovely boarded an inflatable Zodiac with a small outboard motor. The seas were so rough that two people fell overboard (they were saved by those who could swim) and the Zodiac began to deflate. It was three days before they drifted into Italian sea territory and were rescued by the Red Cross off of Lampedusa Island. None of the migrants had any papers whatsoever. Within a year, Lovely would eventually make it Paris where she would become a prostitute in order to pay off the massive debt that she owed her sponsor.
Lovely's story is not an uncommon one and Penelope Giacardy, who works for the Paris non-profit organization L'Association Les Amis du Bus des Femmes, has heard it many times, from many different women.
Everything inside the office of L'Association Les Amis du Bus des Femmes (ABDF) is a shade of pink. The tabletops, the wallpaper, the waiting room sofas and seat cushions, the wastebasket, even the foam ceiling tiles—all pink. The décor looks like the inside of a kitschy love motel, minus the king-size Magic Fingers bed.
ABDF was established in 1990 to fight for the rights of sex workers around Paris and, primarily, to get them medical attention during the AIDS epidemic. With the help of the World Health Organization, they became an NGO in 1994. They now follow and support over 1,500 women every year in Paris, while also fighting against human trafficking and sexual exploitation. The organization was started by prostitutes, for prostitutes; half the staff are still active sex workers.
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Today, ABDF provides sex workers with a range of services, including medical support, legal representation, social workers, French language classes, HIV/STD screening, housing, and most famously, a bus that meets sex workers in the trenches.
The bus, or ABDF's refurbished mobile-unit that roams the streets of Paris and its outskirts, is both where Giacardy got her start in the organization and where Lovely first made contact with ABDF.
"We found Lovely when she was working in the 18th district of Paris, an area where there are a lot of foreign-workers," Giacardy told me. "Lovely had a big medical problem: She had badly broken her arm in a car accident about a year and a half before she left Nigeria. She had no money, so she didn't even see a doctor there. She actually suffered a compound fracture and her arm was basically broken in three places. It was so painful that she couldn't use it and the muscles were beginning to shrink."
Giacardy invited Lovely to come into the office, then escorted her to a hospital in Paris where they managed to perform a series of operations on her arm, which ultimately required bone reconstruction. For the three months while Lovely was healing from the operation, ABDF paid her bills and fed her. Giacardy also wrote her asylum letter, which details her escape from female-circumcision, and is currently being processed by the French government.
"This is a perfect example of how our organization helps women," Giacardy said. "Lovely thought that because she didn't have documentation, she couldn't go to a doctor to receive medical care. This, however, is a right for anyone in France and that is what we try to teach these women—to know their rights."
Unlike most of the staff members at ABDF, Giacardy was never a sex worker. Instead, eight years ago, Giacardy was writing her Masters thesis on the "Consequences of Repression on Foreign Sex Workers" and was permitted to ride along on the bus for six months to observe and help. (While ABDF sometimes allows researchers on the bus, the organization doesn't allow journalists, photographers, film crews, or media of any kind, for the safety of the women they serve.)
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Though she spends more time in the office now, Giacardy still works on the bus four times a week, which hits the streets eight times each week, day and night, for five hours at a time. Half of the staff on board are active, working prostitutes with specialized medical training. They make the same rounds each time so women working the streets know where and when to find them—and they always go out to the woods.
The woods, or Bois de Vincennes and Bois de Boulogne, are two large public parks on the edge of Paris where most of the prostitution takes place since the 2003 Law for Internal Security passed, effectively criminalizing sex workers. (While prostitution is technically not illegal in France, it's punishable a crime to solicit sex for money, either actively and passively.) Recently, the bus also started looping through the Foret de Fontainebleau and Foret de St. Germain en Laye forests, about 50 kilometers outside of Paris, which are more remote and dangerous.
It is in these large parks—more or less forests—where women meet clients and perform their business, literally behind trees or in vehicles parked beside the parks.
"Most nights we see anywhere from 50 to 120 people," Giacardy said. They're usually women—some of whom want to talk, some of whom don't. "They might take some condoms and lubricant and leave. But some come and want to talk for a half an hour. It's also like a break from their work. After talking, we always ask them if they want to come to our office for more help since we have social workers, lawyers, a French school, medical help—anything they need, we have it."
The bus also gives out a free handbook that Giacardy and a co-worker created, in collaboration with prostitutes and members of ABDF, called Hustlers: Health and Freedom. Focusing mainly on Nigerian prostitutes (but written for any woman), the book answers all the common FAQs that a street worker new to Paris might have, detailing basic health issues and legal protections in laymen's terms.
Giacardy explained that many times, the ABDF members on the bus are the only people that these women can talk to about their jobs.
"It's a really interesting job because I feel like I'm deep in something very secret. And it's also very difficult to gain these people's trust because normally they don't talk to people that aren't prostitutes like them because they are afraid of the judgment and stigma," said Giacardy. "But after eight years, I know them well and they know me."
The shift to the woods has made the situation complicated. Because most sex workers are there to stay hidden from police (to evade arrest for solicitation), everything has become much more clandestine than it was before the 2003 legislation. This can lead to more violent clients and gives human traffickers more power than they used to have previously, when sex workers could work freely in the city.
In the office, Giacardy introduced me to Gloria (not her real name), a young Nigerian woman who came to Paris believing she would be working for a wealthy family as a nanny. When she arrived, she was met by a madam who informed her that she would be working a different kind of job.
Gloria, just like Lovely and many other women, had her passage to Europe arranged by a "sponsor," a price that's grown upwards of 50,000 Euros and is, usually, impossible to pay off. (Many of the girls agree to the price partly because they have no concept of the exchange rate and don't know how much 50,000 Euros actually is.) Trapped in a system of debt bondage, the women give all of their earnings to a madam, as Gloria once did before she went to the police and consequently hid from her abusive madam.
"A lot of women are scared and don't want to come to ABDF," said Gloria. "They're scared of the madams who warn them not to learn French or speak to anyone. The madams know that if we go to school we'll discover that other opportunities exist and they don't want that. They've sent men to find and hurt me for going to French school and they've even threatened my family in Nigeria. But mostly, they're scared of the Juju."
The Juju is the ritual ceremony that most Nigerian women make with the madam to keep the promise of paying back the "journey fee." In this Juju ritual, nail clippings, hair (head and pubic), and sometimes menstrual blood are taken from the girls and kept by the madam. If the girls fail to hold up their end of the bargain, these effects are used in a ceremony to cast a bad spell on them. (Gloria, who believes in the Juju, never made a promise with her former madam, and so she felt safe to speak freely about her experiences.)
"Many of these women are victims of human trafficking and don't even know it," said Giacardy. "They don't see the problem, but eventually they have a breaking point where they realize they can't pay the money they owe and that's when they realize they're part of an unfair system. Until then, they believe that they owed their madam that huge amount of money when it really only costs the sponsor around 3,000 Euros, if that, to coordinate it all. This is something I have to explain to them because usually the girls think that their sponsor—who a lot of times works in a team with the madam—is actually helping them. They don't see the connection, and how it's a big business."
Not all the prostitutes that Giacardy encounters, on the bus or in the office, are victims of human trafficking and debt bondage. Many of the organization's founding and present members fight for the right to choose sex-work.
"There are a lot of older women who are members in the organization that really like their job," said Giacardy. "I know a woman that's still active at 82. They believe in the choice that they have to do this work and believe that it's a useful service. Some of their clients could only have sex by paying and people like that need to have some kind of contact with humans—if they have to pay, then so be it."
These women are doubly important to the work of ABDF: They help teach young women that being a sex worker doesn't equate to violence or degradation. "These sex workers teach them that you can't treat women that way," said Giacardy. "They call the shots, not the men. So I really actually think that many of them are feminists in a way. They are strong women that face men and are not afraid."
While Lovely waits for her asylum decision from the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless, she continues to work in the street. Now, she keeps her money instead of paying off an impossible debt—a huge change for her.
It's a similar story for Gloria, who feels freed by ABDF. "I'm so happy now," she told me from the ABDF office. "I don't have to work on the streets as much. Sometimes on the weekends I still do [sex work] to pay my rent, but now I have options. What makes me happy, though, is that I have hope now. I'm finally confident that very soon I'm leaving the streets. But now, even if the police approaches me, I don't have to run because I have documents. This is the biggest change."
The bus finds new women in Paris who have traveled lengths as far as Lovely and Gloria every week. Some of the women are now bringing over younger girls to pay for their own debts when they arrive.
But thankfully, there's a route where those journeys can hopefully collide. A place where newcomers and old can hop on and rest their feet, get some protection, learn about their rights, or even discover a way out.