Young West African Girls Face Perils of Prostitution, Trafficking

In West Africa in the war-ravaged economies of Liberia, Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone, one industry that thrives is prostitution. Young girls in these three countries, some as young as 10, become victims of the sex trade and face the dangers of drugs, AIDS and trafficking.

On the streets in Abidjan, prostitutes are known as serpents because of the hissing sound they make to hail down men and soldiers, driving or walking by.

One girl decked out in tight-fitting bell bottom pants and a see-through top stops a sports car, driven by a U.N. employee, and asks for $30 to share the rest of the night. That's the equivalent of a monthly salary for most in Abidjan.

The foreigner refuses and drives off. But U.N. and French peacekeepers as well as Ivorian soldiers who patrol Abidjan can often be seen picking up scantily-clad girls. Prostitutes say soldiers often rape them without paying and refuse to wear condoms, putting them at the risk of AIDS.

At a nearby hotel, now used as a brothel, an Ivorian businessman is having a fight with another prostitute, Christelle. She says she's 16, but looks younger. Most prostitutes lie about their age.

The customer leaves, accusing her of being drunk. Christelle says she's high to avoid being scared.

She also says that's what Ivory Coast is about these days. She says she needs to prostitute herself to buy her daily bread and that maybe it wasn't like that before, but that now there are just too many problems.

There's a man outside who rents plastic chairs for girls to sit while customers walk by, but there are always loud arguments here.

In contrast, in Makeni, a town in central Sierra Leone, the mood is peaceful at this rescue center for street children. Girls are playing board games. But their stories are just as horrific.

Aid worker Loretta says the prostitutes she saves are sometimes very young.

"The age, 12, 10, there is no fixed age," said Loretta. "They are trying to survive, just survive. Men can easily take them to bed because of money."

One of the center's councilors says sometimes the girls' own parents force them to become sex workers.

"The parents haven't got anything," she said. "They will just go into the streets, whatever they have they will bring it to the parents because of poverty. If you take your time, nighttime you're going to disco and you see them, they go around and even in these military barracks they go there because they want money."

In Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, in this club called the Africa Palace, across the street from a $150 a night hotel, prostitutes like Tracy, who giggles while sipping a coke, give the same reason.

She says the money men give her for sex allows her to pay her school fees and those of her little sisters. But she also hopes to meet a foreigner this way, who she says, dreamily, will take her out of Liberia.

There are so many prostitutes that the United Nations and Liberian police do nothing to stop them, as acknowledged by one disgruntled U.N. employee.

"Prostitution, it's not that I don't care but if a woman is free to sell her body and if she has a passport and she can go whenever she wants I don't care," she said.

The head of the small United Nations' five-member anti-trafficking team here, Celhia de Lavarene, says she understands why prostitutes do it, because they are so poor.

Her job is to make sure they aren't taken into criminal networks and trafficked across borders. She says being a trafficked prostitute is even worse, because these girls have their papers taken and owe traffickers huge sums of money.

The French U.N. worker started her job by rescuing 30 white Eastern European girls who had been brought to Liberia for foreigners who wanted prostitutes but refused to sleep with African women.

Despite her efforts, she says trafficking in and out of Liberia is still taking place.

"We have noticed trafficking from Liberia to London because I had someone in London calling me and explaining to me that Liberian girls were trafficked," said Celhia de Lavarene. "And we had some Sierra Leonean girls being trafficked from Sierra Leone to Liberia."

Mrs. De Lavarene's job is scheduled to end in July, and after that, she is afraid trafficking will resume at a much higher level.

"I'm not going to tell you that we're successful," she said. "It's just now it's on hold, it did not stop. So my fear is that as soon as I leave the traffickers will know I left."

Mrs. De Lavarene who has done most of her work at night in and around the nightclubs of Monrovia, like here outside the Africa Palace, says it's a question of offer, demand and impunity. She says there are so many men willing to pay for sex and so few people really committed to cracking down on the growing trade, to the detriment of all the girls.

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