When Husbands Become Pimps

Sylvestre Tetchiada

YAOUNDE, Jul 20 (IPS) - Business at the numerous money transfer agencies in Cameroon's capital, Yaoundé, is typically a brisk affair. Of the many people who frequent the agencies, one group is of particular interest, however: the husbands of women who have gone abroad to earn money from prostitution.

Eavesdrop as the men receive calls from their wives on mobile phones, and you will hear them sound exultant as they get news of how much to expect. Such scenes become ever-more frequent from June: the start of summer in Europe, where Cameroonian women find work as prostitutes (the most sought-after destinations are apparently Switzerland, France, Luxembourg, Belgium, Italy, Germany and Spain). Departure halls of airports in Yaoundé and the commercial centre of Douala throng with spouses bidding their farewells.

"I can't tell you what I'm going to do in France. My husband tells me I have a fantastic figure, and that I need take advantage of it for the good of my family," a 39-year-old government contract worker told IPS with some embarrassment at the airport in Yaoundé. "When my husband compared our sad situation to that of a family friend who has two cars and a villa, he suggested I go and 'work hard' over there."

"My colleague, who's a regular, left three weeks ago and she's supposed to show me the ropes. She really encouraged me to do everything in my power to travel and make a go of it there," the woman added.

According to information gathered by IPS, women can make up to 20,000 dollars during their stay in Europe. The monthly salary of a mid-level civil servant in Cameroon is just under 200 dollars.

"This is the second time I'm sending my wife to make her way there. I have a friend who lives in high style, and he suggested we get involved in this 'business'," said a second-hand goods dealer.

"He convinced me (my wife's) curves would really knock out the whites, who are attracted to her type," the man added. "I didn't know how to suggest it to my wife, but given our increasing problems I laid it out to her -- and she agreed."

The practice of prostituting wives gained popularity after a collapse in commodity prices helped bring about economic decline in Cameroon, from 1986 onwards.

"Because of this crisis, which has caused moral bankruptcy and a lack of scruples among certain husbands, some men acting as their wives' pimps think that sending them away to be prostitutes in far-off places will earn them lots of cash," Colette Djuidjeu, a sociologist who teaches at the University of Yaounde II, explained to IPS.

Under Cameroonian law, any person found guilty of pimping is subject to a prison term ranging from six months to five years, and a fine of up to about 190 dollars.

To date, however, charges have never been filed against a husband who encourages his wife to engage in prostitution.

"We have sent a letter to the Ministry for the Advancement of Women and the Family about this problem, especially since women have come back with HIV/AIDS," says Samirat Ntiaze, president of the Training and Supervision Circle for Women and Youth: a Yaounde-based non-governmental organisation.

"Our group wants to do something, but the problem always comes down to wives' refusal to turn in their husbands for these barbaric acts, even though it is they who shoulder the burden of their husbands' money grubbing," Ntiaze added.

Similar statements are heard from government.

"We make women aware of the risks they run. But mostly the practice is consensual, and some women don't want to cooperate in dismantling these networks of pimping husbands," said Clotaire Mbembe, a social worker at the ministry for women and families. She was unable to tell IPS how many women are thought to be involved in this form of prostitution.

Officials say that most of the wives who apply for passports claim they are going to Europe to visit a sick family member or for medical treatment.

The Swiss and German consulates, contacted by IPS, said it was known that many women who applied for visas would work as prostitutes once in Europe. But, consular officials added that they had no way of identifying potential prostitutes, as their visa applications generally met immigration requirements.

Rumours also abound of civil servants and policemen sending their wives to have sex with their superiors, so that the men can receive a promotion -- or get into the good graces of their managers.

Still, certain women succeed in turning the tables on their spouses.

"It seems to me that the wives do get something out of it sometimes," says Ntiaze, "since some of them leave and never come back." (END/2005)