Liberia's victims of sexual violence turn to sex work to survive in peacetime

by Jane Labous | @janelabous | Plan International
Monday, 9 June 2014 15:20 GMT

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

BOMI, LIBERIA, June 9th 2014: Carmen*, 20, bows her head and breaks down, sobbing in the shadows of the zinc-roofed hut in Tubmanberg in Bomi county, Liberia.

‘Everything is broken, spoiled. They killed my ma and my pa and impregnated me, three men during the war. I live by myself and my two children are sitting at home, not going to school. There’s no one to help me.’

Carmen was ten when she was gang raped during the brutal civil war in Liberia that lasted from 1999 to 2003.  The conflict left a generation of children orphaned and traumatised, without education or skills to make a living, and thousands of teenage girls were left pregnant from rape, with no means to support their children.

Now Carmen has no choice but to work as a hopojo, or sex worker, to support her son, now 10, and her daughter, seven.

‘When I don’t go on the street, I can’t eat and nor can my children,’ she adds.

Carmen is just one of many women in Bomi who missed out on school during the war years and now works ‘on the block’, or on the street, to make enough money to feed her children.

Blessing, 27, is another sex worker with three children by different fathers. She might make 75 to 100 Liberian dollars (around 50 to 70 pence) per customer, meaning she will have to sleep with several men every night to pay for her children’s food the next day.

Although school is officially free in Liberia, in practice there are many unofficial ‘fees’ for books, tuition and ‘taxes’, meaning parents must pay endless costs for their children to stay in lessons.

‘If I don’t go out there, no one will care for me,’ says Blessing. ‘What can I do to get money for myself? There’s nothing, no job, I’m not educated, a woman with children, no father, so it’s very difficult for me, though I’m trying to leave prostitution.

According to estimates by community workers, 75% of women with children in Bomi County are single mothers and a large number of them have no choice but to become sex workers.

Younger teenage girls who were orphaned in the war, or whose parents are too poor to support them, are also turning to sex work to pay for food and school.

Liberians blame poverty, high rates of unemployment and illiteracy – only 27% of women over 15 are  literate, according to the UN - and lack of education for the growing social problem.

Men traumatised from the war and disempowered from a lack of jobs are rejecting family values, relationships and responsibility for the children they father.

‘We’re trying to do well, but we’re financially impotent,’ says former child soldier John, 31. ‘I want to be able to support someone else, but I can’t support myself. We have no way of making a living. At times I wish I could be a girl child too, just to go in the street and have sex for money.’

John, who admits that he would rather pay for sex than have a girlfriend or wife, says that many men like him are ‘desensitised’.

‘How can you expect us to have relationships with women when we saw our mothers raped and killed in front of our very eyes?’

Kassa, 23, was ten when she first began selling her body, and has given her two children away to more well-off families because she cannot afford to provide for them. She says there are many young girls working on the streets because their parents are either dead, or unable to provide.

‘I used to go to lessons in the day. Then I’d go on the road, sell my body and get customers, come back and buy food. I graduated, but then I had to go back to prostitution.

‘Sometimes now when I see the children among us during the night I ask, “you, little child, what are you doing here?”.’

Fifteen year old Mary goes to school in the day like any normal teenager. At night, she changes out of her school uniform and accompanies the other women out onto the main road, to sell her body for money.

‘I have to go in the street to make money. When I’m entering a room to sleep with a man, that makes me so scared; I see myself as a child.’

The young women believe that education and vocational skills training would help them to leave the streets, start businesses and transform the future for the next generation of girls.

Blessing says she is determined that her children will not be like her: ‘One thing I like about myself is that, yes, I’m doing it, but then my children are in school. I always tell them that education is the key to success, focus your attention on your education, it will help you tomorrow.’

Temba, 29, is a former sex-worker who took part in the Girl Power Project, run by children’s rights charity Plan International in Bomi. The project teaches vocational skills to girls and women aged 15 to 30 to help them start businesses, and will be offering training in how to start group savings schemes.

Since learning how to make soap, Temba has left the street and now supports her four children by running a stall selling her produce in Tubmanberg.

‘I thank God for the Girl Power Project,’ says Temba. ‘Since I joined it, at least I’m not on the street any more, I have my pride and my dignity back. We beg you to help it continue.’

The second phase of the project is about to start in summer 2014, with a new batch of students and a new range of courses including hairdressing, beautician skills and tailoring.

Plan’s Girl Power Project coordinator Beatrice Newland believes that in order to help women and girls leave sex work, they need vocational training and a means to save money.

‘The long term solution is to empower these women. In addition to business start-up kits, we’ll be offering Savings Groups to empower them to start businesses to sustain their families.’

Liberia’s Minister of Education, Etmonia Tarpeh, agrees that education and skills are key for the war generation to change its future, but says that as yet there are no concrete state solutions for Liberia’s young sex workers.

‘All the schools were destroyed during the war, but we have already started rebuilding. Girls’ education is critical. To take girls and women off the street you have to have options for them. We are trying, and I guess we will get to the point where we have the option where they have something essential to look forward to. But it takes time.’  

Kassa starts to cry when she talks about the future. ‘I swear I’d leave the street if I only had a trade and earned my own money. I’d be able to take care of myself and my children. I’d get my pride back.’

Temba adds: ‘Someday we’ll be gone and our daughters will be left. If they can work, they won’t be like us. Bring us programmes for education and trade, so that we can leave the streets and our daughters maintain their pride for tomorrow.’

*All the women’s and girls’ names have been changed to protect their identities. The film Daughters of War is being shown at the Public Summit Fringe for the Global Summit To End Sexual Violence In Conflict at Excel, London, between June 10 and June 13 in London