In Côte d’Ivoire girls as young as 10 years old are exchanging sex for money, rights activists say.
“On the streets of Yopougon [the commercial capital Abidjan's largest neighbourhood] we recently rounded up 36 girls. Most of them were around 10 years old," said Fanta Coulibaly, director of the committee to fight violence on women and children in the Ministry of Family, Women and Social Affairs.
"Many of them said they were after money for school fees or for food.” She said many girls are lured to bars or restaurants by a promise of work, then they are offered money for sex.
The exploitation of girls for sex has long existed in Côte d’Ivoire, Coulibaly said. “But poverty has fed this phenomenon.”
Since a 2002 rebellion Côte d’Ivoire has seen unprecedented instability and the poverty level – people living on less than US$1.35 a day – has increased from 38.4 percent to 48.9 percent, according to government statistics.
Local NGO Centre Féminin pour la promotion des droits humains et de la démocratie en Côte d'Ivoire (CEFCI) is doing a study on young sex workers in the northwestern town of Odienné, 850km from Abidjan, where the group says many girls ages nine to 13 years old are exchanging sex for money.
In most cases people who work with local bar or restaurant owners approach the girls’ families, usually in other parts of the country, promising they will give the girls work, Traoré Nathalie, CEFCI director, told IRIN.
Nabaulsy Véronique, head of CEFCI’s office in Odienné, said: “The girls soon find out that the restaurant owners do not pay them for their work serving drinks or washing dishes. They see that this is not what they came for. Customers begin soliciting them for sex.”
Traoré said given that they have no other way to earn money and are often far from any family support, the girls start to see the sex work as the only way to survive.
As part of the study Nabaulsy said she has talked to many young girls who are having sex for money. She tells them about the danger of the work. She said she has asked many young girls if they want out.
“Many tell me they have definitely thought of stopping this, but that they do not know what else they would do to live.”
Given that the government is not fully redeployed in the north since the rebellion, it is difficult to go after people who are soliciting or trafficking the girls, Nabaulsy said.
CEFCI director Traoré told IRIN the organization’s study will serve to inform parents and authorities of the phenomenon so together communities can “dismantle these networks of exploitation”.