Children in prostitution: Working girls or sex slaves?
They are referred to as escort girls, ladies of the night, prostitutes, and locally, malayas. Sometimes derogatory terms likes sluts and harlots are used to mean females who endure the cold nights to offer their bodies to be used by men at a fee. But shocking is that the trend has taken greater heights.
Now, girls below 18 are streaming into the trade, some with multiple domestic problems, others with high thirst for a quick kill albeit the many problems involved. As Flavia Lanyero writes, the government has not done much to discourage new entrants from embracing the trade.
Polar Nagayi, 22, is a young woman with a charming smile and loves trendy dresses; she is your average girl, with an innocent look. She, however, has a recurring fear, a fear that one day; someone will get to know about her dark past.
Ms Nagayi is one of the 18,000 girls recruited into sex trade, according to a new report released by a non-governmental organisation, Acting for Life. Now a reformed sex worker, she was lured into this illegal business in 2005 at the age of 16, at the time living with her parents in Jinja.
“My father used to drink a lot and when he came back home, they would always fight with my mother. He was chased from his job at UEB in 2000 because of drinking too much and since then we did not have school fees and my siblings and I started staying home,” narrates Ms Nagayi, a first born in a family of seven children.
“My mother did all she could but it was not enough. We were many children, sometimes we could sleep without eating. We had torn clothes, the situation was so bad and I had looked for jobs but they wanted senior four, six or graduates,” she says.
It was at this point that she met an old school friend who told her that she could get her a job where she will earn Shs5,000 a day. “The friend took me to a lady in Nasanga bar (Jinja). The lady gave me a man to go with, she was so harsh and told me not to spoil her business. The man used me and the next day I was given Shs30,000. It was a lot of money and I needed it,” she says.
“I really did not like that work and my mother did not know what I was doing. I told her I was working on night shift, no one respects you in that work, the customers abuse you and even slap you, they expect you to be an expert in bed, you feel dirty and very low about yourself, it was just the money that I wanted,” Ms Nagayi says.
Like Ms Nagayi, most of the child sex workers interviewed in the report say they were lured into the business by friends at a tender age out of dire need for money to cater for their families.
Many of these girls are heads of households as a result of a chain of social problems like child neglect, death of parents, alcoholism and domestic violence. “In addition, lack of sustainable opportunities for education was identified as a key drive,” reads the report.
The study shows that children from poor families and rural areas, traffic into urban centres by adults are the most likely to be exploited. Although recruiting of children is done by adults, the report says some children, especially those working in bars and lodges are increasingly participating in recruitment of fellow children
The trade is well established in Kampala City. The Ministry of Health puts that sex trade is highest in Kawempe Division with an estimated 2,540 sex workers, followed by Rubaga with 1,687, and lowest in Nakawa division.
In Kawempe alone, it is estimated that more than 500 children below the age of 18, are engaged in ‘survival sex.’ The report titled Commercial Sex Exploitation of Children in Uganda, published in May, also finds that the age of entry into commercial sex work is increasingly lower to include children of 13 years, with clients of commercial sex workers demanding to have young girls as opposed to middle-age women because among other things; they charge lower prices and are presumed to carry less risk of HIV/Aids and STIs. The situation is worse in Jinja District, where the age when children engage in the trade is as low as eight years.
The study notes that commercial sexual exploitation of children is growing rapidly in Uganda though hidden and appears to be infiltrating schools. The number of young girls getting into the trade has increased from 12,000 in 2004 to 18,000 this year, with more girls affected than boys.
Pornography is also a new dimension of Commercial sexual exploitation of children mentioned in the report, especially in Kampala and this is growing faster than child sex worker. It said this involves well-coordinated network embracing music celebrities, bars, karaoke group owners with about 18,000 children exploited per week. “It is disguised in shooting films, photos, video and participating in strip dancing.” About 20 prostitutes are strung to one pimp whom these girls report to every night. Some of the popular spots with prostitutes in Jinja include Kachi Road, Mbiko Village, Gohkale Road and hang outs like Babes and Nasanga.
The girls we spoke to, however, say some of the ladies in the business do it out of their will while others even come from wealthy families although the younger ones like them are simply struggling to survive. The ones that accepted to be interviewed expressed disgust with the trade and felt ashamed of it. They even refused their photos to be taken lest someone could identify them.
Ms Nagayi stayed in the business for two years, did not reap much from it and with encounters like beatings from men’s wives, brushes with those that want to murder women and with fear that she might get discovered, she quit the business in December 2007.
She could earn between Shs5,000 - Shs30,000 while sometimes she was deprived of her wages. And now, after receiving counselling from The African Network for the Prevention and Protection against Child Abuse and Neglect, she feels happy about what she termed as ‘a new life of dignity’ but one thing, she still wants to go back to school.
The Programme Manager ANPPCAN Uganda Chapter, Mr Anslem Wandega, himself has done a study on CSEC, says that this act compromises a child’s right to enjoy their childhood and their ability to lead a productive, rewarding and dignified life.
It can result in serious, lifelong, even life-threatening consequences for the physical, psychological, spiritual, emotional and social development and well-being of a child and are at risk of acquiring HIV/Aids. “Children who have been sexually exploited typically report feelings of shame, guilt and low self-esteem. Some children do not believe they are worthy of rescue. To cope, some of them attempt suicide or turn to substance abuse. Many find it difficult to reintegrate successfully into society once they become adults,” Mr Wandega says.
Whereas there are a number of organisations that are trying to fight the vice, according to the February 2011 report commissioned by Acting for Life, interventions by both government and non-government orgisations have tended to target adult commercial sex workers with no programmes in place for the children. “There is virtually no commitment on the part of government to address the problem of CSEC and Networking among civil society organisations to deal with the issue is still weak, underfunded, with limited staffing, uncoordinated and limited capacity in many districts,” the report reads in part.
Indeed, even at ANPPCAN where these few former child prostitutes were met, the social workers confess that they had no plans at all to deal with child prostitutes but met them in due course as they look for cases of child labour, trafficking and the like but only offer psychological support.
The International Labour Organisation constitutes child prostitution, pornography and trafficking of children to CSEC are crimes against children. In the Child Labour Convention 1999 (No. 182), these are the worst forms of child labour and these types of work is supposed to be determined by national laws or regulations or by the competent authority.
The Acting Secretary General of the National Council for Children, Mr Martin Kizza, however says the government is trying to handle this issue and there are laws in place. He says they plan to increase advocacy about the issue which he admits is rather under the carpet.
“At least we now have the Trafficking in Person’s Act operationalised and we are trying to disseminate laws and policies about the issue it is an issue we cannot rub off,” Mr Kizza says. He is of the view that government has put in place laws that tackle certain aspects of CSEC but there are no tailor-made programmes to stem or even mitigate the impacts of the CSEC problem.
“Of recent, the skyrocketing number of children in street situations has made most of the street children succumb to CSEC in order to survive. This looks to be one of the areas ignored by the government,” Mr Wandega says. And if Mr Wandega’s words are anything to go by, there is still a long way to go to mitigate sexual exploitation of children.