Girls of the night: Child prostitution in Africa

African child (© Flickr/George Pauwels)

Child prostitution in Africa is on the increase. Growing poverty, the HIV epidemic and civil strife are just some of the reasons leading more and more children and teenagers, both girls and boys, to sell their bodies on the streets of Africa’s cities and towns. 

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: October 24, 1995


Radio Netherlands, the Dutch international service, presents “Girls of the night: Child prostitution in Africa”. The programme is produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin.

Child prostitution is on the increase in Africa. The continent is far from becoming a Mecca for paedophiles like certain countries in Asia. But more and more young girls are out on the streets of Africa’s cities selling their bodies to survive. This is the story of a few of those girls. Sarah lives and works in Eastleigh, a residential district of the Kenyan capital Nairobi. She’s 12 years old. Sarah is small for her age, the result of malnutrition. But here body is fully developed. She’s streetwise, but she’s never been to a real hotel before. She’s scared in the lift and then marvels that the toilet doesn’t stink. She’s wary at first but then laughs easily, her ponytail jerking back and forth. She lives by herself in what she calls “a hotel”, but it’s nothing more than a small lodging. She earns about 500 to 1000 Kenyan shillings a day, that’s 10 to 20 dollars.

She started when she was 8 years old. She started going to get money. EB: Why did you have to get money? She needed the money to be able to help herself because she didn’t have her parents. EB: Where are your parents? They passed away. EB: Both of them died? They both passed away when  she was 6 years old. EB: What about your aunts and uncles? She has aunts and uncles, but they said they didn’t want them. There were two of them. And the other one died. EB: A sister or brother? The other one was a sister. She was 11 and she died last year. She died because she fell sick, something like malaria. EB: You have no one to take care of you? No, she has nobody. She’s on her own, completely on her own. Just as a matter of interest, I asked about her grandparents. Her grandmother is the one who raised her actually rather than her mother. Her mother and father separated when she was still very young. Each got married in different areas. Her mother deserted them. She left and got married again and died. Her father also died and then her grandmother also died. EB: How did you start doing this? Between the parents when her parents died and the time she started going out looking for men, she was being put up by a friend, and then she met some friends of hers, and these friends of hers are the ones who took her to Eastleigh and they are the ones who showed her how to start. EB: What was it like the first time? She remembers she was in pain, and she was afraid. She was very afraid. EB: But it hurt a lot. Yeah, she says she hurt a lot and she bled. She stayed a period of about 2 or 3 months before she went out with a man again. EB: But then you started doing it again on a regular basis? That’s the time she went to stay in Eastleigh, and she started every day. EB: How many men a day do you see? It depends, but she’ll go with 2, 3, 4. EB: How old are these men? They eldest is about 25. The youngest is 19. EB: Are all the men you have sex with Africans or are there also whites? Mostly they are Africans, Somalis, Boranas, Africans basically. She’s only gone out with an Asian once and never a European. EB: Where do you find the men? She just stands outside the lodge and men will usually come and call her, and she will take them into her room. EB: Do you use a condom when you do it? Yes, she does. EB: Always? If somebody goes to her without a condom, she won’t accept them no matter what the price they give her. Even if he goes to her and says he’s going to give her a much higher price than she normally gets to go with her without a condom, she chases them away. She doesn’t agree. EB: Do you go to school too? No, she doesn’t go to school. EB: Do you know how to read and write? She knows how to write her name. EB: Do you get scared? She says she has no fear. She just prays to God. I also asked her as a matter of interest whether she fears getting a guy who is really rough or something, or what would happen if she fell sick and had nobody to take care of her, she says I just pray to God. EB: Do you have any problems at times with men? No, she’s never had any problems. EB: What about with cops? Well, she has been caught by the police and they just beat her and let her go. EB: Do they take your money too? If she has the money, then they take it. EB: Have the police raped you also? No the police have never raped her, neither have they like approached her, like we’ll give you money if you go out with us. They’ve never done that. EB: Are there a lot of girls like you who do this? She says there are quite a few. There are quite a lot. EB: The other girls who are doing this, are they also doing it because they need money, because they’ve lost their parents?  She says some of them run away from home. Some of them don’t have parents, and some of them have parents who stay in a place like Machengo where we were this afternoon, but they themselves they want to run away and sniff glue and all that sort of thing, so they end up in prostitution. EB: Are you friends with them? No, most of them aren’t friends because they sniff gum, glue. EB: And you don’t? No she doesn’t sniff glue. EB: What do you think of your future? Are you going to continue doing this? She would like to be able to stop at some point, hopefully get some guy who would look after her and take care of her, but if she doesn’t, she’ll just continue as she is. EB: Do you feel jealous when you see other kids who have parents? Well, she doesn’t feel jealous. She just says that’s the will of God. She thinks about it sometimes, but she doesn’t feel jealous. EB: And if you had a choice of something you wanted to do today, what would you like to do? It was really difficult because she says she has nothing that her heart desires. She is content with everything that she has. I asked her if she’d like to get on a plane and go somewhere or…she says there’s nothing. Whatever comes her way is what she’s happy with. So I asked her if she ever saves money to try and do something, maybe start a business or something, and she says the only thing she does is she saves money to buy clothes and shoes and that sort of thing. So I asked her what would you like to buy. She said she would like to buy shoes and clothes  because that’s what I don’t have much of.

Throughout Africa, the numbers of street children are growing, but perhaps nowhere are they as high as in Nairobi. The Kenyan capital alone has at least 120,000 street children, and more and more of them, particularly the girls are turning to prostitution to survive. The increase in child prostitution in the continent is due in part to war, but Wuambi Njuguna of the African Network for the Prevention and Protection against Child Abuse and Neglect, ANPPCAN, believes the main reason is growing poverty.

A lot of the children will come, for example, from the slum areas. They do not have a job. And you have a lot of the street children now because they can’t attend school because they can’t afford it, coming into the streets encouraged even by parents to really go out there and come home with something. In other situations where they become bigger in the streets. Then they are encouraged by their peers. It is easier. You get more money prostituting rather than begging for alms. So I think there is more than one factor. The other factor I think in this country or in Africa is the breakdown of our extended families, where when a child like that comes to work here as a domestic worker in town, and then she’s thrown out, you’re having a situation where I don’t know my next door neighbour. I therefore cannot intervene because I don’t know how he or she is going to react. It’s none of your business as far as they’re concerned. People have become very individualistic because of urbanisation and really everybody for himself and God for us all. So other mechanisms that are in place or were put in place by society are no longer in place here. Therefore, situations that could be checked are no longer checked because systems have totally changed or broken down because of urbanisation.

Whatever the causes, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the number of child prostitutes is rising, and says Wuambi Njuguna, the kids are younger and younger.

Most of them by the time they are 8 years, 7 years, they already now begin to turn to prostitution because I guess it is much easier or they think it’s much easier to get money that way rather than begging in the streets. So that is one way. The other area where it is beginning to be noticed is where they come to the towns to work as domestic workers. We have children coming to town to work, taking care of children of other families that are going to work. Then when they come here, they get into problems with their employers. And being children, they do not have that capability and capacity to argue their cases, and a lot of times they are sometimes thrown out by their employer and sometimes have nowhere to go because when they come here, they know nobody else. They are brought to town many times by relatives in the name that you just come and stay with me, and sometimes parents who are unable to take care of their children because of poverty, one. Two: a lot of times, too many children who they can’t take care of. And also when it comes to making choices about educating children, sometimes they prefer to educate the boy child. So the girl child is usually encouraged to take some form of employment. So they give her to a relative and say why don’t you take care of this child of mine and give her a job or let her take care of your children. When they come here in the cities and towns and get into problems with those people, then they throw them out.

The economic decline in many countries in the continent has not only been the result of dictatorships, corruption, waste and low prices for basic commodities. In a number of countries, the wars of independence led to years of fighting between various ethnic groups or movements intent on securing power. Mozambique in southern Africa is one of those countries.

We had an interesting observed vision in Mozambique, when I went down there in the south and child prostitution…right now, they are calling it child marriages. But you’re sitting in a hotel and you find a lot of grownups who are 25, 30, 40, 50, walk into a hotel and walk in with girls of 12, 13. Before we realised what is happening, we thought a lot of these people would be white people, and we thought maybe they are people working in programmes there, only to realise that they were actually befriending these little girls. One hotel where we were staying, in the morning it was a full hall of grownups and children, and children carrying babies. We were told: those are wives because in Mozambique child marriages, part of it is cultural. Really, they don’t see anything wrong with it. And now that has also gotten into the girls seeing nothing wrong to prostituting. If you can get married at 12, why can you not sleep with a man?

Angola, another former Portuguese colony on the other side of the southern African coast, has an even bloodier history than Mozambique. For three decades, the country was at war: first, to gain independence from Portugal. Then the country’s two main political movements became pawns in a superpower proxy war. A fragile peace is now in place, but the scars are omnipresent. The Angolan capital Luanda has 10,000 street children, a third of the total number of street kids in Angola. On a balmy evening on the road which runs along Luanda’s seafront, I met three young women, aged 20, 18 and 15. All three have been abandoned by their families. Two have been on the streets for a year. The 18 year old arrived only a month ago.

What brought me here is because of my uncle. I had one uncle who used to come to me. I don’t know if this uncle wanted to fall in love with me, but the family also did not take any measures to stop him  from being after me, until such time when I left my family and then I joined a friend of mine. But then the friend of mine also had no money. So I had to start  this life so that I can be able to earn money to assist me and my friend.

It all happened that a friend of mine taught me how to go about this business. From that moment, I started living this life. I used to stay in Huambo with my cousin. So I found that life was not the way I was expecting it to be. With what my friend had taught me, I came here in Luanda and started living this life in which I’m doing now.

At first, we had a business. We sell a number of things, but then the police is trying to impede us from carrying out our businesses. We know that we need to eat, we need to clothe. We need to live better. We need a number of things for our lives, but we don’t have enough money. So with that, we decided to come here along the road to wait for any car or any man who come around so he could give us at least 20 million novos kwanzas for our living. EB: Do you use condoms when you have sex with men? It’s not always. Sometimes we don’t usually have these condoms so it depends. Since we are in need of money and sometimes they also want without condoms, so we do it like that. If it happens that we die, we can die. That’s how it goes. EB: You’ve only been doing this for a month. Was it very difficult when you started? Yeah, it was very difficult because at first my vagina was too small, so each time I would sleep with a man, I would feel pain until in the long run, I managed, and now I’m OK. It’s big and I’m able to do it. EB: What type of future do you see for yourselves? I’m looking forward to have a good life whereby I will need to have a husband who will come and be with me. I’m looking forward to be a woman with responsible to take care of my family. So I need a man in future.

EB: How do you see your future? I want to stop this life because it is so hard for me. I want to now start studying.

EB: What type of effect does child prostitution have on the child? There is first of all the fact that the child is not as yet emotionally ready for such heavy emotions, for example sexual relationships at that age. So her ability to handle it usually is non-existent. Two: physically she is not, her body is not physically mature to handle it, and a lot of times, she is engaging in that practice with people who are much older than her. Therefore it could physically affect her more. But I think the worst bit is psychological because they tend to become people who lose faith and trust completely because it demeans them. They’re doing it a lot of times to live. It’s survival. And therefore the same people who they would imagine would give them protection are the same ones who are exploiting them because of their age, because of their poverty and because of any other situation. So that totally destroys their base which is faith and trust. And that’s what we are bring up children from. There is faith and trust and with that you can go on. So once that is destroyed at that age, you wonder what kind of human beings they grow up to be.

Most of the girls long for simple things: a husband, a family, a decent house, maybe a job. But according to Waimbi Njuguna of the African Network for the Prevention and Protection Against Child Abuse and Neglect, these simple things will remain nothing more than dreams for many of them.

Some continue until they are too old for the trade. Other change, maybe some do sometimes meet other people and get married, and therefore turn their way of living into quote normal lives. But I think the majority of them tend to continue in that situation until they are too old for the trade. EB: Is there a stigma attached to these children if they want to get married, that they are not virgins and they’ve been prostitutes? Yeah, there is a stigma about that. The more she sleeps with, the more she…they tend to look at her as a loose person. So you have these imbalances in gender in that that is right for the girl or that is right for the boy. So they do get stigmatised. If you take a girl home and say this is what you want to get married, your family will be up in arms. How can you? No, no, no, not this one. No, they are stigmatised. Maybe that’s why they stay on in the trade.

A few non-governmental organisations are now trying to provide some help to these girls. Peterson Gatheru of KESCO, the Kenyan Street Children’s Organisation, sees fighting child prostitution as part of KESCO’s wider goal of eradicating the phenomenon of street children.

We have to train these young girls and take them back to school to study. Most of them have been in the primary classes, and the others have gone for secondary schools, but they missed the fees, accommodation and all these because of their poor families and slum areas. We have tried to sponsor those children back to schools. We try to provide the required school uniforms, books and also food so that they may remain in classes. Alternative to that, we have got a second method of increasing income-generating activities, in most cases for the mothers who are poor and cannot afford to cater for these children. So we have tried to provide them with some loans which they can utilise and then make some income within the communities or in the slums. The main beneficiary should be the child. We try to take them for some courses, especially technical trainings. Others for tailoring classes. Others who can be trained in the method of selling newspapers. We have found that we can train these girls for child care activities, to be hired as house girls or house maids and this would provide an alternative rather than going for prostitution.

The last method may actually amount to throwing the girls back into the lion’s den. But so far, KESCO has succeeded in getting 32 girls off the streets. It would like to provide training to another 50 teenagers but it lacks the funds. Other groups in the continent are also taking steps to eliminate child prostitution, but funding is a problem everywhere. ANPCCAN, the African Network for the Prevention and Protection Against Child Abuse and Neglect, believes it’s critical to gather more information about the phenomenon and the number of children involved. It’s carrying out research throughout the continent at the moment and plans to present its findings at the annual summit meeting of the Organisation of African Unity next June. ANPCCAN wants to urge the OAU leaders to recognise the problem and adopt measures to eliminate child prostitution. But Wuambi Njuguna, who coordinates ANPCCAN’s project on children and conflict, believes it will be a long struggle.

I think the problem will get worse before it gets better because the factors that are making them turn into prostitutes have not yet been addressed. So until something is done about that, I think the situation is going to continue getting worse. There are programmes now we must say that are beginning to address for example issues like child labour. We have a programme here that we are addressing child labour and addressing sometimes domestic workers and sensitising communities, leaders, schools and everybody about the need to really have children go on in school and trying to look at all resources available that can be utilised to make sure that the girl stays in school. Maybe that happens and she doesn’t become a domestic worker and therefore maybe you have checked the other problem. But with the situation of poverty, with the street children numbers increasing, I see the situation, the numbers getting more before they start going down.

EB: How old are you? 15. EB: How long have you been working as a prostitute? She says that she has been doing it for about 3 years. EB: Why did you start? Because of problems. She says that her parents are very far away. EB: So why did you come to Nairobi then? She says her parents separated, and her father wanted to get married again. His other wife didn’t want them. She says she’s not having them around. They were staying with her mother a bit. And then when her mother wanted to get married again, the same thing happened, and they all chased them away. They said they don’t want them around and you’re old enough to look after yourselves anyway. EB: How many brothers and sisters do you have? She says she’s got two brothers and two sisters. The older brother, he’s mature. He’s on his own. The other one is in a school which helps destitute people, destitute kids. EB: And her two sisters? They both do the same thing that she does. EB: How old are your two sisters? One is 12 and the other 21. EB: So the three of you came to Nairobi and you started doing this? When they came here, she thought she was also going to be able to go to the school where her brother went in an industrial area, but she found she couldn’t go there. So it was not her intention to do it, but she found that she had to do it. EB: And how did you start? She says that she was told about where we got her just now by somebody. She was told that if she goes there she can make money. So she went there and she started a conversation with a woman there. She asked the woman like how much did she charge for services and all that. She was told that you can ask 5, 7, 900, 1000, and that’s how she started. EB: What was it like the first time? She was very, very afraid. She was very scared. It was the first time she had ever slept with a man in the first place. She was a virgin, so it hurt a lot. And she bled a lot. EB: Did you feel disgusted? The closest I could come to disgusted was self-hatred. And she hated herself because it’s not something she wanted to do. EB: Do you still feel that today or do you feel that I simply have to do this to live? Yeah, she still feels that self-hatred and she’d like to start a business but it’s the money she doesn’t have. All she can say is that it’s definitely not a good life. It’s not an easy life. There’s many a time when you go out, you spend all those hours maybe from 6 to 6 in the morning. You’re out there. You’re cold. You’re hungry. You go back home. You’ve got an empty pocket. You still don’t have any money in your pocket. The problems are too many. And for a kid, it’s definitely not the sort of life that anyone would recommend. I asked her if she thinks maybe there’s any way for them to be helped, yeah, she thinks if there is any way that such kids can be helped so that they can avoid this sort of life, then they should be helped. She would have liked to have been helped.

“Girls of the Night” was produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin. Technical production: Werner van Peppen. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.