UNICEF supports the prevention and rehabilitation of child sex workers in Togo
Lomé, Togo, 20 November 2008 - It is 10 p.m. when Roland Awume sets out on his round visiting all of Lomé’s “red light districts” as he does every Friday night in the “Centre la Providence” vehicle. This peer educator goes from one prostitution hot spot to another doing preventative and awareness raising activities targeting child sex workers.
The “Centre la Providence” rehabilitates exploited girls by providing them with vocational training and medical care, such as free HIV testing and psychological support. “Our work consists of locating child sex workers in the field and convincing them to come to the centre to learn a skill to enable them to work either as a dressmaker or hairdresser. We also provide literacy classes and sexual education. We simply give them some much-needed attention” adds Roland, sitting in the back of the truck used by the centre for their sensitization activities.
UNICEF has been supporting the “Centre la Providence” since 2002, which thus far has enabled 128 girls to benefit from vocational training, as well as psychological care. According to a study conducted in 2004 by the Centre, 60% of prostitutes are under 24 years old; some are as young as 10, and all the organizations involved in Child Protection have witnessed with great concern an increase in child prostitution in Togo.
“Unfortunately, the number of children working as sex workers is increasing with the growing poverty of the population”, Roland explains while preparing the visiting cards that he will distribute to the young sex workers that night. “We want to give these girls the opportunity to live a decent life“.
The difficult task of detecting child sex workers
In Lomé, child prostitution was taking place openly in the heart of the city at a specific location. Following raids by the police in 2000, sex workers and their clients left the city center. New sites have emerged throughout the city, which has increased the mobility of girls who now have to move from site to site and makes the detection of child sex workers very complex.
“It has become more and more difficult to follow where new spots emerge and to create a relationship of trust with the girls and then convince them to come to the centre” said Roland. “But we have adopted a new strategy: we work in close collaboration with the pimps. They keep us informed of the new prostitution spots and grant us access to them and to the brothels. It’s easier to identify child sex workers and provide them care”.
Make a difference
“We are going now to a wasteland near the airport” explains Roland as he heads towards a group of a dozen young women. “We find girls under 18 years old on a regular basis here”.
Dynamic and enthusiastic, the peer educator calls out to the girls and distributes condoms to establish a first contact with them. After a brief talk about the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases, Roland engages them in conversation while trying, step by step, to acquire some information. The peer educator identifies a girl who appears to be younger than 18. He pulls her aside. Her name is Joyce. “She looks really young” he whispers, then explains to her the activities at the centre. The young girl listens carefully and seems interested.
“I would love to be a hairdresser” exclaims Joyce. “But what I would really like more than anything is to go home!” Wearing a white dress and heels that are too big for her little feet, Joyce looks exhausted. She claims to be 19 but does not look older than 16.
“I am Nigerian, from Lagos. My brother made me come here four months ago. At first I tried to sell water bags at the market, but I was kicked out because I am a foreigner. So here I am…” she says hopelessly.
Roland tries to comfort her and gives her the phone number and address for the centre. On his way back to the vehicle, he seems outraged.
“What a waste! So young and innocent! Look at the kind of world we live in! This is why our work makes so much sense. We can make a difference. This girl has a chance to make it off the streets if she calls us “ he says, heading to another prostitution site. That night, Roland and his team visit five different sites and approximately 20 child sex workers were made aware of the activities of the centre. Since they started the prevention and awareness raising night time activities, a total of 8,666 girls have been reached and 1,105 have taken the HIV/AIDS test.
Three days later, Joyce called the centre. “It’s the first step. But it’s the usually the hardest. She is interested in the vocational training. I’m sure she will make a great hairdresser!” says Roland enthusiastically.
In line with the objectives for 2012 and in partnership with the Government of Togo, UNICEF provides a minimum package of services to vulnerable children. At least 40% of these children, among which many are girl victims of sexual exploitation, will have access to these essential services. The package includes psychological care but also provides the means for an education and medical assistance in order to ensure an effective protection of rights, a quality education and good health for every child.
by Nicolas Martin-Achard and Hadrien Bonnaud
Africa preparatory meeting