Sex workers and street boys in South Sudan: “It is not ok”

You are hungry, homeless and without family to help. You are struggling to find work to earn the money to eat. What would you do?

In South Sudan, brutalised, weary and war-torn, people eek out an existence in one of the few ways available – selling sex. “Life is bad here, people don’t understand,” explains 21-year-old Samira Sunday. She came to Juba looking for work. “It is not ok for a young girl in Juba. It’s difficult to find work - no work, no money. So sometimes it’s necessary to go with a man to get money.”

Having been interviewed by more than 16 companies she has had to resort to selling sex to survive. About selling sex she is clear. “No, it’s not fine, it’s not ok for me. It just makes me want a job. There is no choice. I need to eat, to dress.”

Working with sex workers

A local organisation, South Sudan Women Effort Fighting AIDS (SSWEFA), provides condoms for the women and increases knowledge of HIV and AIDS to help the girls and women protect themselves. Many of the sex workers in South Sudan are from neighbouring African countries. Of the Sudanese sex workers, most are very young girls who work under elderly women who bring them clients. They have very poor knowledge on HIV and are unlikely to use condoms.

Betty is another young woman unable to find work in Juba. She received training as a peer educator. “I took condoms and demonstrated them to the other girls" she says, "Some of them said this was the first time they saw one. They told me that they thought they were only for those who were infected. I told them ‘no they are to protect you’. We are such a hurt society. It is indescribable. 18 men raped a friend. Rape is common here. If I go to the Intra-African hotel and someone wants me, if I refuse they might push me into the Nile and kill me. When I leave home I worry, will I reach there safely? I feel mostly safe at home, but my mind is not settled. You start to move as a thief even if you are innocent. We are proud of Sudan but we are getting scared. We want a new Sudan to grow not fall,” she says.

"I took condoms and demonstrated them to the other girls. They told me that they thought they were only for those who were infected. I told them: no, they are to protect you. "

— Betty Scholar

Working with street boys

Assunte works for Southern Sudan Older People’s Organisation, supported by the Alliance, which began with a focus on the elderly but has grown into a broader development group. They work with street boys training them as peer educators on HIV and distribute condoms to them.

“Before the signing of the peace accord the sex workers were there but not open in the way they are now,” explains Assunte. “They rely on the street boys. Sometimes they get them to act as security so they don’t get beaten. They are then paid by the sex workers in kind.”

Forced to move on because of the war, many street boys are orphaned or have lost their relatives in the chaos of armed conflict. They ‘live’ in the market in Juba.

“Our life in the market is high risk,” says John, 18, who lives on the streets. “The police can find us and beat us. We depend on ourselves. We sleep under the tables and can be attacked. If anything happens it’s our fault.”

John has been alone since he was 10 years old. “I lost my father. He was a soldier. My mother is still alive but I cannot stay with her because she can’t support me.” John finds any way he can to earn the money to eat. “If the money isn’t there I starve. But friends help each other. We share in the market,” he says.

Despite their desperate situation Assunte says that the boys have hope and if they are supported they can change. “They say that they don’t want to keep killing themselves in the market but they need money now and today – so any training has to be practical for them. If they can earn while they train they’ll be interested. We taught them about using condoms and we have trained 20 peer educators,” explains Assunte.

Johan, 15, is a street boy and peer educator. “AIDS is a challenge to us. We can contract it if we are not careful…. AIDS is a real risk. I feel happy to be a peer educator. I feel proud. I feel BIG. It’s like having a good brain and I like having one,” he says grinning.