‘I sleep with older men so that we can eat’

Sex workers continue to face threat of rape and abuse from police
Sex workers remain targets of abuse as long as sex work remains a crime. (File photo)
Under-age girls are being forced into prostitution to help feed families. File Photo
Under-age girls are being forced into prostitution to help feed families, says SWEAT (File Photo)

Dire financial situations, with families languishing in poverty in the Free State, has seen an escalation in mothers who sell their young daughters to feed their families, said Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Task Group’s (SWEAT) provincial manager in the Free State and North West, Sogomotso Ntlhaile.

In Bethlehem in the Free State, OurHealth spoke to a 16-year-old schoolgirl* who spends her afternoons doing sexual favours for her mother’s male friends instead of doing school work because “if I don’t, we won’t eat”. She has been doing this since she was 14 and gets about R100 for having sex, she said.

This was not the life she had dreamed of for herself, but “my mom told me that I have to use my body so that we don’t starve. So every time her male friends come to our house, they sit around and drink and when I get home from school my mom will come to me in my room and tell me: ‘You should prepare yourself’ for a man”.

“I started doing this two years ago, I would sleep with these older men and they will give me money, which my mom and I will use to buy food. At first it felt so weird but I got used to it.”

Child prostitution a problem since 2013

The soft-spoken teen’s case in not an unusual one, with underage prosititution in Free State long been seen as a problem. As early as 2013 government was called to intervene. But, said Ntlhaile, it has had little or no affect.[quote float= right]My mom will come to me in my room and tell me: ‘You should prepare yourself’ for a man”

“There was more of an approach of arrest instead of rescue by some police and that has not worked. Many families see sex work as a way out – as a quick fix to fend for their families.”

While SWEAT advocates for the decriminalisation of adult, consensual sex work, as a best possible way to combat HIV and protect sex workers’ rights, it seeks to prevent underage men and women from being forced into the field.

“It is so sad that these young girls engage in underage sex and who are forced into sexual activities at such early ages. It exposes them to illnesses such as STIs, HIV and even cervical cancer,” Ntlhaile told OurHealth.

“Socially, their bright futures are stamped out, as many end up dropping out of school or failing because of underperformance. It is so imperative that they avoid this. And in the Free State, with many standing to wait for clients in the darkest roads, they are being killed brutally. Ultimately they are paying with their lives. These young girls’ lives are in danger.

“Women don’t see any other option of finding a way  to provide for their families. They think the best way is to use kids. Ignorance also plays a part.”

The teen OurHealth spoke to said that she always used protection. “I fear for my life, I don’t want to get sick and am also preventing pregnancy at the clinic. I wish I could stop, but I can’t – I eat because of that money.”

When OurHealth approached the mother, she was angry and defensive.

“There is nothing I can do, I didn’t go to school so where will I work? There is nothing we can do – I am doing this for her. I know it’s not right, but what can I do?”

A neighbour in the area said: “The mother offered her daughter to me. I was so shocked as to what mothers were capable of doing to their children. It is prostitution.”

OurHealth was unable to get comment from the Department of Social Welfare in Bethlehem, but a social worker who works in the area commented on the case.

“It’s not fair what the mother is doing to the child. She is the one who’s supposed to take care of the child not the other way round. We work with issues like this and we normally take the children to a place of safety to give them better life in our centres.”

*Names of teenager and mother withheld to protect the child

This story was also published in The Star and the Pretoria News newspapers and IOL.co.za



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