Saturday February 18 2012

Sex trade: At 17 years, I have slept with more than 400 men

Under the Moonlight HIV/Aids Testing campaign,

Under the Moonlight HIV/Aids Testing campaign, health workers visit places where suspected prostitutes carry out their business during the night and they convince them to do an HIV/Aids test. File photo 

By Harriet Anena

As the sun sets in Gulu Town, Angela’s day is just beginning. By 9pm, she is already at her work station. Her eyes are fixed towards the door - waiting for a potential client to walk in and notice her.

She wears an ecstatic smile, which occasionally reveals a set of white teeth, that lightens up her pretty face. Her petite body makes her appear the youngest in the pub and vulnerable.

A young, smartly dressed man walks in and approaches her. She gets to her feet and turns around, probably to show off her body. Her tiny breasts protrude through the low-cut blouse as her round bottom shapes her black pair of leggings.

But five minutes later, the discussion seems to have hit a snag. Angela walks away towards the pool table, taps another man on the shoulder and wiggles seductively. He ignores her. The night seems to have started on a bad note, so she heads towards the counter for a bottle of beer.

Even as she sips her drink, her eyes are roaming around the room, scanning for an available customer.
A friend I have moved with approaches her and they talk “business”.

“Shs5,000 is ok,” she says, looking down as she plays with her tiny fingers.

Without much ado, the pair head out of the pub.

Unknown to Angela, she was just headed for an interview with me. When I follow the duo out of the pub, a cluster of other girls is standing on verandahs along the Gulu-Kampala road, waiting for customers.

Laughters and giggles can be heard as one passes by the teenagers.

Angela is now standing near a bank, making final negotiations with her client, until I approach and introduce myself.

When she finally learns the reason why we brought her out of the pub, disappointment can be seen on her face. But my friend assures her the deal still stands.

As we look for a quieter place to carry on the interview, a security guard approaches and orders us to sit down: “What are you doing here at this time of the night?” “Don’t you know you are standing near a bank?”

“Officer…we are…”

“Shut up, or I’ll shoot,” the guard shouts, pointing a gun at me.

We are then ordered inside the bank premises and reprimanded for, at our ‘age’, roaming in the night like criminals.

My company Identity Card and an explanation that I am doing a story, saves us the detention but not after 45 minutes of threats and an accusation of “posing a security threat to the bank.”

As we walk to freedom, I am convinced Angela will not agree to the interview, but she says it is ok.
She is used to harassment and beatings by guards and some of her clients.

“Sometimes you can agree on a fee, but after he has slept with you, he beats you up and sends you away without payment,” says Angela. “But I cannot give up just because I have not been paid, maybe the next client will pay me double,” she adds, in a tone reeling of an injured hope.

Angela, is just one of the over 200 teenage girls in Gulu and Lira towns, now engaging in child prostitution as a means of survival. Increasingly, young women across the northern region, especially in Lira and Gulu districts are putting their bodies up for sale in the “flesh markets”.

“I come to this pub every night,” Angela says. “That is how I pay rent for my grass-thatched hut, buy food and earn my upkeep.”

The ease with which she talks about the trade, makes one think Angela loves what she does but she does not. “I do not, but have no choice for now,” she says.

Both the government and non-governmental organisations say they do not have specific figures of how many girls are involved in the trade but put the number for Gulu town at about 100.

The high level of poverty and the two-decade LRA civil war that show millions hoarded into internally displaced peoples camps, leading to moral decadence and culture interruption, are said to be the major factors aiding this trade.

Angela’s father was a soldier, her mother a housewife, but all passed away while she was only three years old. She and her sister then moved in with their aunt, but when savings from her father’s retirement package ran out, mistreatment set.

After two years, she was sent to Kampala, to live with another aunt and get education. But when she arrived in the city, three babies were thrust in her infant arms – to babysit.

“I used to babysit three babies at a go,” she recalls, her mind taken back to the years “that were filled with abuse and neglect.”

When city life became unbearable, Angela, who was now 14 years, left for home in Pabbo Sub-county, Amuru District, to live with her uncle.

However, when she later discovers that she is pregnant, her life sinks deeper into destitution. Her uncle and his wife become hostile. “That is when I started thinking of suicide,” she says.

Even when her baby girl, now three years old, was born, life remained miserable.

Torn between suicide and the welfare of her baby, Angela seeks advice from a friend, who tells her to try life in Gulu Town.

“I had a child to support, so I got a job as a housemaid but I was never paid for two months.”

She quit and got another job as a waitress in a restaurant - working from 9am to 9pm, for Shs2,500 a day. She received payment for the first month and nothing for the next two months. “I realised that I needed to do something quick to survive,” she says.

New beginnings
When a friend invited Angela to a pub; it was a start of new life - sex trade.

“The people there convinced me to join the trade. The money was better than anything I could find and I was desperate,” Angela recalls. ‘At first, I felt dirty, vomited after the act but later came to accept it. I have endured beatings and abuses from clients plus living with the fear of contracting diseases.”

And since April 2010, at 15, it has been a night of one or two men daily for Shs5,000 half-night, or Shs15, 000 for a whole night.

With the over 400 men Angela now counts to have slept with in just one year, one wonders how this young girl has remained healthy.

“I usually insist on using condoms. If he refuses, then I also refuse.”

Endurance, plans
For now, Angela is enduring the emotional torture of sleeping with men that she has no emotional attachment to, but for the money. She hopes to save enough money from the trade and educate her daughter.

But unlike Angela, who wants to go back to school, her 16-year-old friend Florence (names changed) wants to return to her village and embark on farming.

At 14, Florence was already trading her body for money, but two years on, she feels the life she fled from could be better.

A daughter of a peasant from Parabongo Village in Gulu, she was lucky to have her sister take care of her until the age of 13 years, in a village where children fend for themselves from as early as five years.
When her father passed on in 2008, life was bleak, with her mother, a housewife, struggling to take care of her and her siblings.

Florence and her sister were taken under the care of their paternal uncle: “But that was only for a short while. My uncle was not willing to shoulder the burden of taking care of us.”

Her mother’s new husband, whom she describes as ‘a perpetual drunkard’, did not want to see them either. He would beat them up every time he is drunk.

Florence’s older sister later found a “job” in Gulu and invited her to join. When Florence arrived in Gulu, her sister introduced her to sex trade. It was a difficult job but her now HIV-positive sister could no longer fend for Florence. It was her turn to put food on the table.

“At first, I opted for a more ‘decent’ job. I worked at a pork joint for Shs50,000 per month. But the man would only pay the boys, because he fears they will beat him up if he didn’t pay up. So for us the girls, we got nothing,” Florence says.

It was this that forced her to quit her job and join her friend Angela in prostitution.

The two rent a hut that costs them Shs10,000 a month in Layibi Village, Gulu Municipality.

Angela and Florence, both of whom stopped in lower primary, say they are willing to enroll in a vocational school to gain skills in hairstyling, catering or tailoring.

But that step, they say can only happen if well-wishers come to their aid to allow them leave the risky business.