Hopes dashed: Foreign women turn to sex work in South Sudan

by Jocelyn Edwards | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 1 November 2011 12:00 GMT

Poverty-stricken, many of these desperate women who turn to prostitution also are HIV-positive

JUBA (TrustLaw) - They call themselves “women in business”.  But it’s the last type of business most women, who have flocked to the world’s newest country, would choose.

Lured by South Sudan’s booming post-war economy, women from countries surrounding the country have streamed to its capital, Juba.  But unable to get other work, and often without even the money to get home, many have found themselves in the long, low lodges made of corrugated tin that serve as the city’s brothels.

Sharon*, a woman from northern Uganda, sits on a bench outside a lodge at the back of Juba’s Jebel market.  She came to Juba a couple of months before South Sudan became independent with hopes of working in a hotel and sending money back to support her 13-year-old daughter.  “They told us there was a lot of money in Juba and a lot of work.  But when we reached, there was no work.  I don’t know Arabic, so I didn’t find a job,” she said.

Peres Ide, director of South Sudan Women’s Effort to Fight HIV/AIDS, says Sharon’s story is typical of the foreign sex workers living in Juba.  “Their friends, their own peers encourage them to come.  Then reaching Sudan they do not have any skills to get a job so they end up in brothels as commercial sex workers,” she told TrustLaw.

Ide’s organization counted more than 3,500 sex workers in Juba in June of this year; 73 percent of them were non-Sudanese.  Women from Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo make up the vast majority of the foreign sex workers in Juba but the women also come from as far away as Rwanda and Ethiopia.

Sitting beside Sharon on the bench is Paulina, also from northern Uganda.  The 28-year-old sends every extra penny of what she earns back home to help pay school fees for her brothers and her daughter, who is five.  She says she can earn much more in Juba than she could in Uganda as a petty trader.

Paulina’s parents and neighbours in Uganda don’t know what she does in Juba.  “They don’t know that we are working in the lodges.  They think we are working in hotels,” she said.

The women earn 10 pounds (about $3) per customer but “when you have no money to even take tea, you can even accept 5,” Sharon said.  It’s not much, especially when you consider that they must spend 10 pounds a day for their rooms and one pound a day for anti-retroviral drugs. 


Like many other sex workers in South Sudan, Sharon and Paulina are HIV positive, a fact they hide from the local Sudanese population.  They take their pills in secret and though they use condoms they live in fear of discovery.  A South Sudanese man once came to the lodge and accused a Ugandan sex worker of giving him HIV.  “He came here and wanted to kill her, but she disappeared.  Up until now, he is still looking for her,” Paulina said.

While Sharon and Paulina only have themselves to look out for, many of the Congolese women working in Juba also have children to take care of. 

Sifa, 30, came to Juba from the Democratic Republic of Congo last year.  She brought her children, ages one and three, with her.  She lost many of her relatives in the war, which meant she had no one to leave the children with.  “I am the only one remaining (in the family).  My mother is dead, my father is dead,” she said.

Though her room is only two meters square, it must accommodate her, her children and her clients.  When she has customers, she drops a floral-patterned curtain between the bed and the space on the floor where the children sleep.  “I have nowhere else to put them,” she said.

Like so many of the sex workers in South Sudan, Sifa’s hopes for a good life in Juba were disappointed.  “I understood that in Sudan there was a lot of money.  They told me if you go to Sudan you can get a job.  Per day you can get 30 or 40 pounds.  But it’s not like that.  People were just lying.”

The Congolese woman needs at least $200 for her and her two children to get back to her village in North Kivu.  “I just stay because there is no way for me to go back.  If God helps me, I will go back in December,” she said.

* Names have been changed.

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