South Sudan child prostitution on the rise

Conflict and poor law enforcement contribute to an increasing number of child prostitutes in Juba, South Sudan.

Juba, South Sudan Child prostitution in Juba continues to rise as an increasing number of unaccompanied minors and street children risk getting trafficked or abused , due to the country s most recent conflict.

Mary*, a 14-year-old girl, said: “I have nobody in Juba, so I ended up here at the lodge [brothel] to make a little bit of money.” A Dinka from Bor, whose father died a few years ago, she lost contact with her mother, and was taken to Juba by distant relatives. Like many other girls, she was introduced to prostitution by friends.

Susan*, another 14-year-old orphan who works in Serikat market, says she cannot live off prostitution yet because of her young age. “I cannot take more than 3 men per day even then I must sometimes rest for a few days.”

Up to 500 girls out of Juba’s estimated 3,000 street children could be engaged in child prostitution. A survey conducted in September 2013 by Confident Children out of Conflict (CCC) and the French embassy found that 31 percent of 159 street girls surveyed were victims of commercial sexual exploitation.

Last week, a report issued by the US State Department claimed that child prostitution in South Sudan is on the rise .   “The level of displacement has really increased the risk of how many children are exposed to potential trafficking. Lots of children have lost family support and are at greater risk of being exploited,” a US embassy official told Al Jazeera.

Although 2013 data suggests that over 90 percent  of Juba’s sex workers are foreign women from neighbouring countries such as Uganda, Kenya or the Democratic Republic of the Congo, many returned to their home countries when fighting broke out at the end of last year. Young South Sudanese girls started to fill the void in a growing market, partly fuelled by the increased presence of soldiers around Juba, aid agencies say.

The breakdown of traditional family structures during the war, neglect and abuse often precede child prostitution. Cathy Groenendijk, Director of Confident Children out of Conflict, explains that internally displaced or returnee children who have lost their parents or whose parents are unable to care for them find their situation particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation.

When the children grow up a bit, they start looking after themselves or even their parents. They start selling plastic bottles or polishing shoes. As the girls get older, 12 and upwards, many enter commercial sex work, Groenendijk said.

The economics of sex trade in South Sudan

Confident Children out of Conflict
  Cathy Groenendijk is the founder and director of Confident Children out of Conflict (CCC), a local grassroots organisation in Juba which is helping to get street children off the streets, and into schools. Cathy runs a children s home that currently shelters 58 children, and also raises funds for school fees of children whose parents can t afford them. Much of CCC s work has been funded by private donations.

According to 15 sex workers interviewed by Al Jazeera in Gumbo and Jebel markets, girls pay brothel owners anywhere from $5-10 a day for a room. Younger girls often work in low-end brothels, and can earn as little as $10 per day – barely enough to pay rent, food and basic consumables such as condoms and toilet paper. 

Based on these figures, a small-sized brothel housing five women could generate up to $1,500 per month, almost twice South Sudan’s GNI per capita of $790 . As such, the brothels constitute a lucrative business for their owners, especially in light of the recent economic downturn.

Aid agencies further report cases of trafficking of young girls from disadvantaged rural areas for prostitution to Juba: “Some ladies promise poor families in Torit or Kapoeta to take care of their girls in Juba in exchange for domestic work. Then they keep them in houses, get clients for them and keep the money,” an aid agency official who spoke on condition of confidentiality told Al Jazeera.

Regina Ossa Lullo, Director of Gender and Child Welfare at The Ministry of Gender, Child and Social Welfare, is aware of instances of trafficking, but says the ministry has lacked resources to investigate the topic: “We need to find out who are these elderly women who bring young girls to the brothels to work for them – it’s like slavery actually.”

At risk of HIV/AIDS

Though no accurate figures exist on HIV prevalence in brothels, agencies working with sex workers estimate that the vast majority of girls and women in the brothels have HIV/AIDS.

Mary has tested positive for HIV/AIDS after an older friend convinced her to go to the clinic because she looked sick. “I don’t want to go back for treatment. I don’t believe them, I don’t feel sick.” She doesn’t have access to free condoms, so up to 50 percent of her daily income goes towards purchasing protection.

Organisations such as PSI and International AIDS Alliance run HIV awareness campaigns and hand out condoms, yet in light of the political unrest over the past six months, funding priorities have shifted towards protection of civilians and humanitarian aid.

Alex Wani, Director of South Sudan s Youth United Against Aids, a community based organisation that works with sex workers says: We handed out 9,000 condoms in November 2013, but then there was no more funding for 7 months, until we finally got new materials this week.

Awareness of HIV transmission and protection mechanisms is more limited among younger girls. Sometimes the young ones come to us and we train them on how to use condoms, Jacquie, a Ugandan sex worker told us. But the younger girls are often unable to assert themselves over clients who refuse to use condoms, and many South Sudanese still believe that they are the cause for disease transmission.

Abuse and lack of law enforcement

Abuse by clients and the police is not unusual, and has been further fuelled by rising gender based violence during the recent conflict. According to several accounts, police officers conduct occasional raids on the brothels and use the presence of condoms as evidence for prostitution to extort payments from the women.

“They come with force, in uniforms and use the ladies,” a woman, who preferred to remain unnamed told Al Jazeera. “If they find a condom in the house, you get arrested, taken to the police […] and charged with 500 pounds ($125),” the woman said.

The girls might be taken to the police station, but the police often can't get the brothel owners.

by - Ossa Lullo, Ministry of Gender, Child and Social Welfare

Col. James Monday Enoka, Director of Public Relations at the Ministry of Interior, told Al Jazeera that no cases of misconduct or abuse by the police in brothel areas have been brought to his attention. “Many people these days wear uniforms, they may not even be police.”

Prostitution in South Sudan is illegal. According to sections 253 and 257 of South Sudan’s penal code, brothel owners are liable to two years of imprisonment, while harbouring minors under 18 for the purpose of engaging in unlawful sexual activity is subject to a 7 to 12 year prison sentence. Yet, in a country where young girls in their puberty are often married away, legislation on under-age sexual conduct stands in stark contrast to customary law and local culture.

Authorities have made limited efforts at eradicating brothels. Occasionally brothels are demolished by the police, causing girls to shift to other areas or to more covert private houses. According to the US State Department’s 2014 Trafficking in Persons report, the government did not prosecute or investigate any offences related to child prostitution or trafficking between April 1, 2013 and March 31, 2014.

Ossa Lullo says the police don’t take the issue seriously and often target the girls instead of the brothel owners. “The girls might be taken to the police station, but the police often can’t get the brothel owners […] The owners will say that they build the house for rent, and they don’t know that they are using it as a brothel. If he says something like this, he will not be arrested.”

*The names of the children mentioned were altered to protect their identities
Source: Al Jazeera