Vulnerable girls risk sexual exploitation on Juba's streets

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JUBA, 28 January 2010 (PlusNews) - In a large market in Juba, the regional capital of Southern Sudan, young women spend long afternoons lounging on beds in sweltering iron sheet rooms, waiting for men.

One girl, no more than 17, wearing a tight tee-shirt with the words "I love beer" emblazoned on it, points us in the direction of a different set of rooms, with the really young girls.

IRIN has come to the market with Cathy Groenendijk, director of a small local NGO, Confident Children Out of Conflict (CCC), which for the past two-and-a-half years has run a drop-in centre for children from desperately poor homes in Juba. Today, she is searching for 14-year-old Alice*, one of her protégés who recently rang her to say she had found accommodation in an area known to house mainly sex workers.

"I can't be angry with her, I know where her family lives - right on the street; I can't judge her for wanting something better for herself, and her body is all she has to bargain with," she said.

Alice's new home is a compound comprising several iron sheet rooms, all occupied by child sex workers, one of whom is heavily pregnant but has never been to an antenatal clinic. Alice insists she is just renting a room and is not having sex for money, but when Groenendijk nevertheless advises her to always use a condom and offers to take her for a contraceptive injection, she readily agrees.

"Of course there is shame, she wouldn't admit to me that she is a sex worker because she thinks she has let me down, but as much as it pains me to have to talk to a 14-year-old girl about condoms, the alternative - pregnancy or HIV - is worse," Groenendijk added.

Many of the older sex workers in the market said they consistently used condoms and sent away clients who refused to use them, but for child sex workers, who earn significantly less, purchasing condoms can be difficult.

We are soon shooed away by the men who run the compound, but not before Alice tells us that the room she rents belongs to a police officer; another sex worker tells us hers belongs to an immigration official.

CCC is one of a small number of NGOs dealing with the growing problem of street children in Juba; a 2009 survey by the French NGO, Children of the World - Human Rights (EMDH), found at least 1,200 children spending their days in the city's markets.

Children come with their families or escape to Juba, a booming commercial hub, to seek employment - shining shoes, collecting water bottles or washing cars to make a living. Some are able to return home at night, but for many, the city's streets, shop verandas and local fields are home.

High risks

"The opportunities are not as many as people imagine, and when families reach Juba, many parents drink to numb the problems they are facing, letting children run wild," said Anita Queirazza, programme manager for EMDH, which is working with street children in Juba.

Lack of structure or protection within the family makes girls vulnerable to sexual abuse, something Groenendijk deals with regularly at her drop-in centre.

"Some of these girls - even as young as seven - know so much about sex; either they live in one-room shacks with their parents so they see it, or they are abused by local men and boys," she said.

According to Sylvia Pasti, chief of child protection for the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) Southern Sudan office, girls on the street risk violence, including sexual violence, and trafficking for domestic work or sexual abuse, and have no access to healthcare, both generally and following rape.

Dragudi Buwa, head of office for the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) in Southern Sudan, agreed: "There are many young girls in town - both Sudanese and from other countries - looking for work that is not readily available. Rape is very common in the city's markets."

Slow progress in protection

UNFPA has trained special police units in four police stations in Juba to deal with cases of gender-based violence, and has also trained health workers to deal with cases of sex abuse, but the region's limited infrastructure means very few ever make it to court or hospital. The only place in Juba - a city of more than 300,000 residents - equipped to deal with sexual violence is the teaching hospital.

The Ministry of Social Welfare, with limited numbers of social workers and the smallest budget of all the government departments, is ill-equipped to deal with either the survivors or their attackers.

"There is a policy on children without primary care-givers, but it has not yet been approved, and the child act of 2008 lays out all the rights of children but has not really been implemented," said UNICEF's Pasti.

UNICEF has trained 78 social workers to support the ministry, but they have no office.

"In an ideal world, we would have child protection units in every division in Juba so that child abuse is immediately reported and dealt with," Groenendijk said. "We would have child play areas so the kids wouldn't have to play in the local graveyards. But we are still a long way away from that vision."

kr/mw

* Not her real name

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