By Hannah McNeish
In the tin warehouses at the back of Jebel Market, in Juba, capital of South Sudan, the business of sex is booming; in the rows and rows of tiny, dark, padlocked rooms – a so-called “sex camp” – girls and women practise the world’s oldest profession in the world’s newest country.
Juba is one of the fastest-growing cities in the world; construction and trade are thriving, and commercial sex work is no exception. Many of the women in the sex camps are from neighbouring countries such as Kenya and Uganda, drawn to Juba by the lure of making a quick buck; few, however, realize the dangers. “They [clients] tell you they want you, then they take you to a room and when you ask them to use a condom they pull out a knife or [hold] you at gunpoint,” says Charity*, who came from Uganda looking for waitressing or domestic work. “They are beating you, slapping you, and saying: ‘why you want to use a condom if you come here?’” the 30-year-old says, her experience echoed by many other women. “Sometimes after the customer enjoys with you they refuse to pay,” and especially if the matter of condoms is brought up, says Mary*, 35. Mary’s work enables her to send around US$35 a month to her six children in Uganda.
HIV is already a reality for many of these women, and for others, a very valid risk. Ugandan sex worker Anna says she has known she is HIV-positive since 2006. “I’m not doing this job because I want to – I don’t have any choice,” says the single mother of three, whose husband left her nine years ago. “Sometimes you enter the room with them, they give you 10 pounds [around $3.50] and say they don’t want to use a condom,” Anna said, adding that “some take you by force” if you insist on a condom. Sex workers often do what they can to protect themselves from HIV and other sexually transmitted infections and are usually better informed about HIV than their clients, according to Phyllis Jones-Changa, interim head of Family Health International (FHI), an NGO funded by the US Agency for International Development that works with most at-risk populations, including sex workers.
FHI is training sex workers to be peer educators and distribute condoms in brothels. “We’re finding that the knowledge levels are higher [among sex workers]… the sex workers are actually asking us to provide more condoms,” she said. “You do find cases where men don’t want to use condoms but I think increasingly we’re finding that the sex workers, when they become more aware, they use more condoms.” FHI has tested 17,000 people in the “most at-risk” category since the start of the year in four states – Eastern, Western and Central Equatoria and Western Bahr el Ghazal – and found prevalence to be 8 percent. In comparison, a 2009 survey put the general prevalence in South Sudan at about 3.1 percent.
Jones-Changa added that ongoing efforts by the authorities to evict the sex camps from Jebel Market would make it much harder for organizations such as FHI to conduct HIV prevention programmes for sex workers in the city. Estimates of the numbers of sex workers in Juba vary from 3,500 to as many as 10,000, but they all agree that the numbers are rising. “Within the areas where we work in Juba, we have between 4,000 and 6,000 sex workers registered, and we don’t even work in all areas,” Jones-Changa said.
Cathy Groenendijk, who runs a local NGO called Confident Children out of Conflict (CCC), spoke of an “explosion” in sex work that she says has pushed prices down from about $35 per sex act six years ago. Charity, who arrived in Juba two years ago, says the price has halved to $1.75 due to a recent influx of new women. She said her last HIV test six months ago was negative, but that the price decrease means that some men come and spend all day in the “sex camp” and have sex with several women who may or may not use protection.
Many of the Ugandan women in Jebel Market flocked over the border to South Sudan at the start of the year, when the South voted almost unanimously to secede from the north after decades of civil war. Groenendijk says that while many of the sex camps were torn down before independence celebrations, they have simply changed locations. Nearby, there are other camps full of Congolese, Ethiopian and Eritrean women who also came to South Sudan seeking employment.
While the adult sex market is mostly serviced by foreign women, under-age South Sudanese girls often live in even worse conditions and have to see at least three clients a day for food and the $3.50 daily rent to pimps. Awut*, 15, looks younger than her age as she stands in a tiny bedroom that she has tried to brighten up by hanging a colourful array of clothes, her most prized possessions, on the walls. She is one of six girls IRIN spoke to who had dropped out of the CCC programme to send street children to school and refuses to admit to Groenendijk that after an abortion last year, she is now quite clearly pregnant again. “There’s a guy that comes around here,” she says, smiling nervously and twirling a strand of synthetic hair around chipped fingernails when asked if she has a boyfriend. Her two friends, also known to CCC, struggle to hide their own growing bellies. “All three girls are pregnant. That means that they are not using condoms,” Groenendijk said, expressing concern about diseases and the young girls’ ability to raise children.
Her centre lacked the staff and resources to take on the massive youth problems in Juba; for many young girls, sex work is preferable to life on the streets. “One of the girls told me that she would rather go and have sex paid for than forced sex in the market… for nothing,” she added.
During the 21-year civil war that claimed some two million lives, South Sudan’s borders remained closed and its HIV prevalence was relatively low compared with Kenya and Uganda. Officials fear, however, that HIV prevalence could be higher and continues to rise. “Anecdotally, we have heard that the rate of HIV, particularly along the border areas, and [among] sex workers is rising; however, there is no conclusive data demonstrating this,” said Mandisa Mashologu of the UN Development Programme (UNDP) in South Sudan, which helped the country secure $26.9 million from the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis in 2006 for a five-year programme to help prevent and treat HIV/AIDS.
While South Sudan applies to the now seriously underfunded Global Fund for more cash, Mashologu says, “There is currently inadequate government budget for HIV/AIDS. Logistics and supply chain management is one of the major challenges facing government, UNDP and its partners,” she added, noting that Juba’s main hospitals ran out of test kits in October as a “Know Your Status” campaign launched a year ago gained momentum. “Just from anecdotal evidence… it could be explosive if we don’t get hold of it [HIV] now and really address it, and because of the economic meltdown right now, [finding funding] is a challenge,” Jones-Changa said.
Richard Jeniozi, civil society coordinator at the South Sudan AIDS Commission, said the flow of immigrants, traders, refugees and returnees over the border to a post-conflict country lacking resources and with a long list of health problems meant HIV could soon become a major problem. “This movement of people over the borders is putting the population… that has low levels of education and high levels of poverty [at risk],” Jeniozi said. “Combating HIV/AIDS is not a one-man business, so I call on the government and all the NGOs to support us and for the population to realize this is a real threat, as our capacity is low after the war.”
Hannah McNeish works for the BBC in Juba. Courtesy of IRIN. IRIN is the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.