Adonis Tchoudja on Fighting HIV among Male and Transgender Sex Workers in Cameroon

In a place where sex work is illegal and homosexuality is criminalized, Adonis Tchoudja leads Aids Acodev Cameroon in the fight against HIV among male and transgender sex workers

My name is Adonis Tchoudja, and I am president of Aids Acodev Cameroon. Created in 2009 by a group of young sex workers, Aids Acodev Cameroon was born out of a demand for HIV services tailored to the needs of male and transgender sex workers.  Aids Acodev Cameroon stands for Aid to Underprivileged and Vulnerable People in Cameroon (Aides Aux Couches Défavorisées et Vulnérables au Cameroun in the original French).

Sex work is currently considered illegal in Cameroon under Article 343 of the Penal Code. Under this statute, engaging in sex work can land a person in prison for up to five years. A climate of secrecy and stigma leads sex workers to endure abuse and violence from clients, pimps, and even law enforcement. Punitive laws make access to HIV services extremely difficult. The prevention and care services for sex workers that do exist in Cameroon focus entirely on female populations.

In Cameroon, all sex work must remain hidden because of Article 343, but male sex workers must deal with another law as well - article 347A, which criminalizes homosexual practice. Due to this, male and transgender sex workers find themselves neglected and doubly marginalized. Because of Articles 343 and 347A of the Cameroon Penal Code, it is impossible to find justice in the face of sexual abuse. Sex workers need legal protection.

For transgender sex workers, the risk of danger and abuse is often greater. Transgender sex workers are usually forced to live in hiding. If a transgender sex worker is caught by police, the punishment becomes more severe once the police realize the sex worker is transgender. During sex acts, transgender sex workers often must hide their sex – and many times sex workers are beaten by their customers. We must enlist the help of “Protection boys,” men who wait behind a door and intervene whenever a sex worker needs help.

I have worked on a number of projects since taking my position as president of Aids Acodev Cameroon in 2010. Aids Acodev Cameroon runs an education night patrol that visits brothels, bars, nightclubs, restaurants, and massage parlors. We are also active on online dating sites, and we conduct talks on HIV prevention and care in the homes of sex workers. We also hope to gain acceptance from Cameroon’s religious community. It has been very difficult to mobilize and receive adequate funding for Aids Acodev Cameroon, so support from the ever-prospering religious community in Cameroon could open many doors for us. We are currently looking for funds to start a drop-in center for counselors and colleagues of female, male and transgender sex workers.

At Aids Acodev Cameroon, we are interested in building coalitions between different sex worker organizations, but this can be challenging. Most organizations only work with female sex workers and often have a moralistic, even evangelical belief system that does not represent Aids Acodev Cameroon. Many times these organizations are not run by sex workers. However we do maintain a strong partnership with the organization Acfili and we are currently in the process of working with them to build a national network of sex workers.  We are also allied with Danaya So in Mali and Awa in Senegal.  Aids Acodev Cameroon is also a member of the Francophone African Network of Sex Work Projects, and since 2011 we have been a member of the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP).

With help from our allies and with our own hard work, we hope to shed light on the human rights needs of male and transgender sex workers in Cameroon. We demand rights, respect, and tolerance for the male and transgender sex worker community.