Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Ugandan Girls Entering Juba Prostitution Racket
Activists say more than half of all Ugandan prostitutes in Juba come northern Uganda, and that many of them are young girls. (Photo: Stein Ove Korneliussen)
Mother-of-four Acullu Rose has not seen her daughter since the 13-year-old left the family home in Atiak, northern Uganda, to travel to Sudan two months ago.
Rose fears the teenager has been lured into a life of prostitution by a merchant from Sudan who was doing business in Atiak, a trading centre only 50 kilometres south of the border.
“I have looked for my daughter and many people tell me that she is in Juba (the capital of South Sudan) working as a prostitute,” she said. “What can a young girl like mine be doing in such kind of business? I know that I am poor – this war has really affected us – but I have tried my level best to provide for all my children.”
Child prostitution is already commonplace in Atiak, where girls as young as 11 can be seen selling their bodies on the street to survive. Typical of many border locations in Africa, travellers moving between the two countries fuel the sex industry.
Now officials and activists are concerned that vulnerable youngsters, some of whom are already prostitutes, are being trafficked to Juba or, seeing their friends return with fancy mobile phones and smart clothes, enticed away by promises that they can make good money in the South Sudan capital.
At the child protection unit in the Atiak sub-county local government, 15 parents have reported that their daughters have gone to Sudan and are calling on the authorities to intervene. The girls are aged between 11 and 17; only one has since returned home.
Okongo Gabriel, who is in charge of the unit, believes that there could be many more children who have left home for Sudan, but parents are afraid to come forwards because of what the community might say about them and their family.
Onekgiu Roman, an official in the community liaison department of the central police station in the northern Ugandan town of Gulu, blames officers at the border post for not spotting children crossing over to Sudan.
“We have links with the police in Atiak and, yes, there are cases where girls from here have gone that far for prostitution,” he said. “Most of them are told that through this ‘business’, they are able to earn three times as much as they could in Gulu.”
The immigration officer in charge of the Nimule border station, between Uganda and Sudan, declined to comment on concerns over children crossing the frontier.
Ojok Felix, a social worker with the NGO War Child Holland, says that his organisation has been meeting parents and sub-county authorities in order to find a way forward, and have located some of the girls whose families have reported missing to the police.
“According to our investigations, five girls have been spotted on the streets of Juba, one has since returned,” he said. “We are working with friends and relatives in order to bring the girls back.”
Cathy Groenendijk, the director and founder of a small Juba-based NGO, Confident Children Out of Conflict - one of the few organisations catering for young girls at risk of sexual exploitation in South Sudan – says more than half of all Ugandan prostitutes in Juba come from Gulu and Lira, also in norhern Uganda, and that many of them are young girls.
With the streets of Juba a dangerous place for young girls, where they risk gang violence as well as sexual exploitation, she warns that little is being done to assist these children.
“There is not so much help for children at risk,” she said. “We take all sexually-abused girls between the ages of 6 and 18, when they are willing to go to school. They have breakfast, lunch and supper at our centre. They wash and go to school, do homework and keep their books at the centre.”
Back in Uganda, D’Andrea Weeks, a senior programme advisor with the NGO Child Voice International in Gulu, also says that the sexual abuse of children is a legacy from the days of the country’s civil war.
“During the times when people were in the IDP (internally displaced people) camps, the cases of children being sexually abused were so rampant we still see it now,” he said. “Many young girls prostitute themselves for food, money or security.”
Janet, not her real name, has been working as a prostitute ever since she was thrown out of her family home, aged 11. She is now 16 and can’t see a future outside the sex industry.
“I did not choose this as the way I wanted to earn a living,” she said. “But the conditions I had been living under forced me to move to the streets to sell my body. After my grandmother died, my uncles refused to pay to send me to school and then threw me out of the house. So what was I to do with my life?”
Janet’s grandmother took care of her after her mother died when she was just five years old.
But her uncles never looked upon her as one of the family, because of the way she was conceived; her mother had been raped by a soldier when she was a refugee in an IDP camp. They chased her away and told her to go and look for her father.
Janet says that men sometimes abuse her and she is constantly worried about contracting sexually-transmitted diseases.
“Some men don't want to use condoms and I have to give in because I need the money,” she said. “Others use you and refuse to pay or give you less money than you agreed.”
She adds that, if you object, they beat you up.
Lira district police commissioner, Azuk Maruk, who heads up efforts to crack down on child prostitution in Lira, acknowledges that there are a high number of underage sex workers on the streets, but insists this is changing.
“When I joined Lira central police station in 2009, the level of prostitution in the town was alarming, involving underage girls who [should instead] study and become better citizens,” he said. “We found that the level of crime, such as robbery and rape, was closely linked to the presence of the prostitutes.”
Maruk says that he responded by rounding up child prostitutes and offering them counselling. Those who had relatives were returned home, while others were taken into community care.
“But this has not been easy,” he added.
Eric Odong, programmes director of Child Voice International, says that underage prostitution is a particular problem in Gulu and Lira. The community and the district authorities are aware of the issue, but despite much discussion have done little to address it, he added.
“When you go to the nightclubs in town, you see young girls hanging around,” he said. “Some of them are children under the age of 18, selling themselves for whatever reasons.”
And Sarita Hartz Hendricksen, the founder and director of the NGO Zion Project, an organisation in Gulu that gives assistance to young girls and women who were once involved in prostitution, notes a depressing generational legacy amongst sex workers.
“We work with women and girls who were once involved in the sex industry,” Hendricksen said. “Most of them are young girls under the age of 18 who were either forced by their mothers, or abused by the clients of their mother.”
Florence Ogola is an IWPR-trained reporter.
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