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Sex work as the “Last Resource” : Risking death to feed your kids

Team: Adie Vanessa Offiong (Nigeria), Patience Akumu (Uganda), Muno Gedi (Kenya), Laurelle Mbaradza (Zimbabwe), Mae Azango (Liberia), Eric Mwamba, Isabelle Ntanga Kabeya, Suzie Manyong Nawat (Democratic Republic of Congo), David Dembélé (Mali) Precious Mbewu, Prudence Mbewu en Evelyn Groenink (South Africa)

Anita, who sleeps on the floor with her five children, her granny and her two brothers in her one-roomed township house, wakes up every morning at four AM to be on time at her cleaning job at a school in Pretoria, South Africa. She returns in the evening to cook for the kids, but can’t rest after that: it is now time to move on to the local shisa nyama open air drinking and eating place, where she dances on tables and hopes to find a guy who will part with two hundred Rand (fourteen US$) for a session with her.

Saratu in Abuja, Nigeria also offers sex to neighbouring workers and traders after a day’s work at her market stall. The same evening awaits Laura, a student in Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of Congo,  Lucy, a cook in Tororo village in Uganda and Nadifa, a seamstress in the Somali community of Eastleigh, Nairobi. They all simply can’t get by without doing sex work, even if they are frightened of violent customers and even more so of falling sick with HIV/Aids, like Karabo in Pretoria did and who is now too tired and sick to do anything.

The above mentioned women all feature in a new report by the African Investigative Publishing Collective, called ‘The last resource: risking death to feed your kids,’ that shows that close to two-thirds of women in poor areas in seven African countries resort to selling sex to be able to feed themselves and their families. For the random interviewing exercise, AIPC team members approached women in communities where the average living standard is under US$ 1,90 per day in Liberia, Nigeria, Uganda, Zimbabwe, DRC, Kenya and South Africa.

The interviewed women all have day jobs as hairdressers, vegetable sellers, cleaners, dress makers, waitresses and housewives, but say they have to do sex work in the evenings to make ends meet. All also say they are frightened of HIV/Aids and death -largely because clients refuse to use condoms-, but that they have to take that risk in order to feed themselves, their children and often also elderly and sick relatives.

STREAMER I’ve lost my soul. I am laughed at. I am empty

They also all feel ashamed: “I’ve lost my soul. I am laughed at. I am empty,” are some of the comments we collected. Only one third of all women interviewed said they made enough to live on without having to resort to selling sex.

The women came to town with nothing

“Don’t be fooled, every woman here is a prostitute,” says Emma, a hairdresser in Kamwokya township slum, Kampala, Uganda. “They won’t tell you, but they do. How else are you going to survive here?” “HIV will kill you in twenty years, but hunger in two days,” the women here whisper to one another. The slum is full of people who once arrived from Uganda’s rural areas, looking for a better life in town. But while the men who came had some money to start out with, from properties and land sold in the country, the women, -due to traditional rules that exclude women from land ownership and inheritance- have come with nothing.

STREAMER HIV will kill you in twenty years, but hunger in two days

Nothing beside an extra burden, that is. Arriving in the ‘big city,’ it now also falls on them to send money home to elderly parents, sick relatives -and sometimes children- they have left behind. Staying in the rural areas to farm instead, would likely not be a solution, though: in Mali (see note below), where men have departed from rural villages leaving women and children behind, women equally resort to sex work to feed their families. The burden, where women -mothers, and in the case of elderly parents, the eldest and subsequent daughters- seem to be solely responsible for the well-being of the entire family, is also mentioned as a major factor in resorting to sex work in all the other countries. Ironically, the women often keep what they are doing a secret from the same families. In the words of Timi, in Nigeria: “They just think my shoe-selling business is booming.”

None of the women we interviewed thinks of selling sex as just work. “It’s not a job,” says Winnie, who works with Emma in Kamwokya. “It is terrible.” The female students at the University of Lubumbashi, in the mineral-rich province of Katanga in the DRC can’t wait for the day they will have their diploma and won’t need to look for ‘clients’ anymore. But since their civil servant fathers have not been paid their salaries for months on end, Laura gives sex at Lubumbashi hotels in the evenings to pay for food, transport and university fees, while Juliette is at the beck and call of her ‘protector,’ a rich customs officer. (Customs officers, who receive regular gifts from mineral smugglers, are among the richest civil servants in the DRC.)

The back streets

Their hopes for a diploma might still come to nought. Laura says she is exhausted because she needs to service more and more clients to keep up with ever rising prices and fees, and Juliette’s ‘sugar daddy’ wants her at every moment of the day and night, causing her to miss classes and exams. She then has to sleep with teachers to be given another chance to pass.

Additionally, there is the risk of illness, they say and they also dread the  ‘repetitive abortions’ they must undergo in the back streets of Lubumbashi.  Family planning is so frowned upon in the DRC, that even when contraceptive pills are available, the risk that ‘someone will talk’ still stops girls from asking for them in pharmacies and clinics. In contrast, illegal abortions abound. Many people in Lubumbashi and elsewhere in the DRC know a girl who did not come back from the back street treatment after falling pregnant.

Rita, a grandmother and former soldier in the Liberian army, is very scared of what might happen to her 18 year-old granddaughter Baby-girl, but fails to keep her off the streets at night. “I beat her so much that I don’t even have strength any more. But she keeps going.” Later in the conversation, Rita admits that there is often not enough food in the house and that, sometimes, all she has to feed the kids, including Baby-girl, is a mix of juice and rehydration sachets in the evening.

STREAMER Maybe Baby-girl would go to school if she was given food there

There are programmes to alleviate poverty, programmes for “the girl child” and programmes for women empowerment in all the countries where we worked. In Liberia, a new government under ex-footballer George Weah is boasting a “pro-poor agenda” that explicitly states a “focus on girls” and includes, besides better sanitation in the now sewage-filled streets, medicines in clinics and schools with roofs and teachers, also grants for extremely poor families and daily school meals. Maybe Baby-girl would go to school if she was given food there, but so far, it hasn’t happened. Instead, a street girl programme that was partly funded by NGOs and -admittedly, a drop in the ocean, but still- managed to get close to two thousand girls off the streets of Monrovia and into little businesses, was stopped when the new government took over last year. No reason was given, but word on the streets of Monrovia is that the new incumbents are suspicious of all things that were run by the previous other-party-government and also that new ministers are busy building palatial houses.

In Uganda, the government boasts thirty-four percent women in its parliament, as well as of being on its way to a middle income country; Nigeria is one of the countries that have a full Women’s Affairs Ministry that operates a budget for “vulnerable groups.” The South African government trumpets around forty-five percent women in parliament, and almost half of the government ministers are women. But nothing from the political elite, female-empowered as it may be, trickles down to the places where most poor women live.

The big stomach men

Some of the politically powerful do know women in the poor places, though. In rural Moutse in South Africa, several women identify ‘big stomach men’ who work in the ‘department of whatwhat’ as the owners of the houses where they live. They say they pay these ‘landlords’ alternatingly with money and sex. Efforts to find out if the square, uniform houses in this rural area are owned by private individuals or have been built with social housing money from the government remain unsuccessful. The municipal spokesman, in an email that arrives weeks after questions have been sent, says he does not know which houses we are talking about, -even though that has been explained to him in geographical detail.

In Zimbabwe, it is the soldiers who harrass the women. Interviewed women in the Chiadzwa diamond mining fields in Mutare district say they have gone into sex work because -contrary to government promises- the mines do not offer any local employment, certainly not to women. The soldiers who protect the mine and the territory around it are now among their most regular clients, but, the women say, these soldiers also have a “tendency” to see them as “personal property.” This behaviour sometimes results in the soldiers coming to their houses to demand sex for free; sometimes they also raid them and beat them if they see them ‘hanging around’ male artisanal miners. One woman says she was among a group taken to a nearby police base and whipped “to learn not to lie on their back and open their legs” by soldiers who were their customers. 

When contacted for comment, the head of the provincial Third Brigade of the Zimbabwe Defence Force, Major Xavier Chibasa, says that he is concerned about these allegations and that he will investigate.

STREAMER They had been whipped to “learn not to lie on their back and open their legs”

The question why, even in very poor communities, men seem to have money to pay for sex, while women are forced to do sex work, was answered in a number of different ways. “Men don’t have to stay with kids so they have money for nonsense,” is how a woman in Moutse put it (in Moutse,  it was also observed that men who have children with various women are also ‘sharing’ in South African child welfare grants). In Mali, where bad governance and nepotism have resulted in the closure of a factory and the failure of planned manufacturing entities in two towns, men have simply ‘left to unknown places.’ In South Africa and Liberia, men are reported to have gone into ‘criminality.’ (Remarkably, however, in two cases, criminal sons and sons-in-law are cited as supporters of families.)

Clowns in government

Results from the seven-country exercise predominantly indicate that bad governance, with its dismal failures with regard to health care, education and care for elderly (oil-rich Nigeria, for example, has a National Health Insurance Scheme that after twelve years of implementation still only serves one percent of the population) is a major root cause of the extreme impoverishment of women. Other important factors are the fact that very few men share the burden of care for children or families and traditional rules that say women can’t inherit property or own land.

These traditions are seen all the more as a stumbling block in a context where men are not fulfilling their traditional roles as breadwinners and protectors anymore. “They say they are still real men, but they have become perverted versions of men,” says a researcher in Moutse, who also blames the “pain of apartheid,” for traumas in communities. At the same time, most interviewed women recognise that better governance could help address outdated traditional practices and abandonment by men, for example through functional land and maintenance courts.  Many mention “clowns in government,” “politicians who don’t respect us” and “corrupt governments,” as culprits who are not doing their job in terms of public services, law and order and social justice.

STREAMER The Ministry was still to survey the situation on the ground

National and local authorities, when asked for comment, often respond evasively or not at all. In Mali an official refers to local youth employment projects we are unable to trace (neither has any of the twelve young people we interviewed in the locality in question heard of them); in the Democratic Republic of Congo we are told that the relevant ministry is still to “survey the situation on the ground,” in Nigeria a Women’s Affairs Ministry official first says there is a budget for “vulnerable groups” only to later admit that such a budget “has not been released.” In South Africa the Moutse municipal spokesman believes that employment is the “task of the National Youth Development Agency” (not known for any employment output in the twenty years of its existence); a director in the Nigerian Health Ministry “bluntly declines” to comment; and, save for army major Chibasa in Zimbabwe, authorities in that country do not respond to repeated emails and phone calls at all. Nor does any government representative in Uganda.

The run for oyinbo

The only women in the interviewing exercise who report having been able to amass considerable savings and even build houses from the proceeds of sex work are Nigerian women who live close to businesses and oil companies where white men, ‘oyinbo,’ work. The ‘oyinbo’ are said to pay up to the equivalent of one month secretarial salary for a ‘sugar daddy’ type relationship; pay for travel to obtain shop supplies; and even for tickets to Europe, in cases where the oyinbo lives there and has fallen in love with the Nigerian partner (who, in one case, unbeknownst to the oyinbo in question, sometimes also has a ‘real’ boyfriend in Nigeria). Many women also report that they aim for sex work in Europe.

In a conclusion, the AIPC states that its observation that out of the hundreds of millions US$ that are contributed yearly from donor countries and the World Bank to alleviate poverty on the African continent, nothing reaches the 226 women interviewed, could be due to poor governance.

The AIPC calls, firstly, for more research into the issue, and secondly on Western governments and multilateral institutions to increase support for the functioning of states and judicial systems, rather than continue to expect currently seemingly incapable governments to do a job that they are so far not, or not sufficiently, doing.  The AIPC also calls for more support for local organisations active in the field of good governance, such as for tax system building, law enforcement monitoring and investigative journalism.


(1)    An investigation in Mali into the impact of bad governance and unemployment on the rise in sex work was conducted and is included in the report, but a random interviewing exercise was not conducted in that country and therefore no data from Mali are included in the results.

(2)    See for the entire report from Tuesday 7 May

(3)    All (first) names of interviewed women have been changed for reasons of privacy.


Report by the African Investigative Publishing Collective (AIPC)



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