The misery of DRC's child prostitutes

Even though she is just a child, 16-year-old Revoli has had to grow up fast, following her friends, neighbours and relatives into a life of prostitution.

“I wanted to have money like they had,” said Revoli. “Now I regret it, but I have no other choice.”

Selling her body, she says, is among the few options for making a living available for women in poorer neighbourhoods of Goma, in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

One of Africa’s biggest countries, with enormous potential mineral resources, DRC was plunged into civil war in 1998, one of the many conflicts that have plagued the former Belgian colony since independence in 1960.

At least 300 000 people were directly killed in the five years of fighting that followed in the former Zaire, and a further three million died from the resulting violence, famine and disease. A ceasefire was only signed in 2003.

So in Goma, as in the country’s other war-ravaged cities, salaried jobs are rare and the population scrapes by, making a living as best it can.

For women, prostitution is one option, but is fraught with dangers.

Officially, 5% of the population are said to be infected with the HIV/Aids, but aid groups believe the true figure is a lot higher.

And prostitutes, along with the army, the militias, businessmen and truck drivers are believed to be the main carriers.

Violent clients are another, persistent danger for vulnerable child prostitutes.
Revoli said she is regularly beaten to escape payment, or to force her to have sex without condoms.

She said she tries to insist on using condoms and would rather lose a client than catch the HIV virus, but sometimes if business has been bad she’ll agree to unprotected sex.

And in a country where everything has its price, the free condoms distributed by non-governmental organisations have become another valuable commodity.

In the bars where Revoli turns tricks, earning €5 to €10 a session, she also has to buy her condoms.

“The owners have turned them into a business and resell them,” she said.

Life outside the bars is equally bleak. She quit school at 15 and cut her ties with her police inspector father because he was too authoritarian.

Home now is a tent precariously perched on top of the canvas and boards that have been laid over the hardened lava which flowed out of Nyiragongo volcano, in 2002 engulfing the city’s residential quarters.

The young prostitute says her parents do not know she is a prostitute. If they caught her, Revoli says, she would “prefer to die”.

And while she dreams of returning to school, Revoli said she “couldn’t live without money”.

So for the moment, Revoli harbours more modest ambitions, including landing good clients. “The best are from the United Nations peacekeeping force, particularly the South Africans and the Indians,” she said.

The UN mission in the DRC, known as Monuc, is the largest UN peacekeeping operation in the world with about 17 600 employees.

It was set up at the end of DRC’s five-year civil war in 2003 to oversee the ceasefire.

But in February, 2005, the UN was forced to bar its civilian and military personnel from sexual relations with young Congolese, after some were discovered to have sexually abused girls as young as 13.

Despite the ban, Monuc admitted last month it was investigating new allegations implicating its peacekeepers in the “sexual exploitation of minors”.

“Monuc has received allegations about the existence of a major prostitution ring involving minors, close to a large concentration of Congolese soldiers and Blue Helmets in South Kivu, [in the] north-east of the DRC,” the UN mission said in a statement.

Since December 2004, the peacekeeping force has registered at least 140 alleged cases of sexual abuse and exploitation implicating its personnel.

Revoli says that while peacekeepers often ask prostitutes their age, “the younger the girl, the better they like it”.

She looks back nostalgically to the days when she had a regular client, like her friend Mamie, a single mother with a four-year-old child. “Life was easier, we took less risks,” she said.

But today, like many caught in the prostitution traps, Revoli dreams only of finding a muzungu, or white man with the money to help her flee her impoverished surroundings and take her far, far away.—AFP

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