Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
I first got the idea to write about the exploitation of young girls when I visited a friend in Bibia, 100 kilometres north of Gulu and not far from Uganda’s border with Sudan.
Late one evening, we decided to go for some fresh air and to listen to some music at a local bar in the area.
Shortly after we had taken our seats, a young girl approached us and asked what we would like to drink. I was taken aback by how young she looked. She can have been no more than 14 or 15 years of age.
Why was she working so late in such a place? I asked myself. Shouldn’t she be at home, with her parents, and not working as a bar girl?
I was even more alarmed by the young girls that I saw later that evening, on the way back to my friend’s house. As we walked through the dimly-lit streets, I counted as many as ten young girls parading the streets, wearing very little clothing and walking together in small groups. None of them could have been older than 16.
After a brief discussion with my friend, I discovered that teenage prostitution is a big problem in the area. But the issue seemed to run much deeper than that and I quickly learnt that many of the girls don’t just practice prostitution at the border; they also cross over to South Sudan.
A few weeks later, once I had returned to my home in Gulu, I went to the police station to report that my travel documents were missing. In the waiting room, I noticed a number of young girls. Like the girls in Atiak, they were all skimpily dressed.
Talking to one of the police officers, I learnt that they had arrested around 15 girls below the age of 18, who had been selling their bodies on the street.
I asked myself why a young girl would go into prostitution at that tender age. Where are their parents? Do they know about the kind of life their children are leading? Why aren’t these children at school?
I started wondering whether what I was seeing in my country was a result of the two decades of insurgency that northern Uganda had witnessed.
It was upsetting to see these girls in this situation, selling themselves to earn a living, and so I decided to go and search for answers to my questions.
I decided to travel up to Ataik sub-county, on the border with Sudan. There I met Okongo Gabriel, who is in charge of the child protection unit for the local government.
He not only told me about the situation in Atiak, but also took me to visit parents in the nearby villages, who have reported their children missing. I met several parents, who narrated their stories to me.
As I listened to them, I realised that these children are pushed into prostitution for various reasons, including poverty, peer pressure and the hope of improving their chances in life.
Although many of these girls are lured away from their home by the promise of a better future, their dreams are often overtaken by difficulties they face such as abuse at the hands of strangers.
One of the girls that I met in Atiak told me that she came back from Sudan because of such problems.
My fact-finding mission also took me to Lira town, where I met a 16-year-old girl who had worked as a prostitute for the past three years. She also told me about how difficult it is to be in such a profession, and how she has lost hope for the future.
There were quite a number of challenges in the process of gathering information. I made phone calls and sent requests for interviews to over 15 NGOs, but I only received a few positive responses.
At this point, I felt like letting the story go. But then I remembered the look of desperation that I saw on the faces of the mothers whose children had left home, and I vowed to press on.
I had made a promise to these women that I would raise awareness of their plight, and this is what I intended to do.
Some women, though, had unrealistic expectations. Indeed, one woman I interviewed actually thought I would go to Juba, the capital of South Sudan, to bring back her daughter.
Speaking to NGOs, I realised how widespread child prostitution is in the country, particularly in the north.
But what I really wanted to do was speak to an NGO in Juba, who could give me a feeling for how it is for the children once they are on their own.
Finally, I got my breakthrough by tracking down Cathy Groenendijk, the director and founder of a small local NGO, Confident Children Out of Conflict, based in Juba.
She provided a good overview of what life is like for young girls on the streets of Juba, especially when they are not from Sudan. She told me that there are very few organisations catering for young girls at risk of sexual exploitation.
She also gave me some indication of why children choose to pursue this life – because of poverty which means their basic needs are not being met, because of the deaths of parents, family break-up, neglect and abuse. She also suggested that some of the young girls were being trafficked.
I finally had my story.
Florence Ogola is an IWPR-trained reporter.
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