Mariama Fofanah stares vacantly into the mirror, mechanically applying makeup on to her face. She never winces – not even once – as she covers her bruised face and swollen, black eyes. She is one of the estimated 300,000 prostitutes in Freetown – the capital Sierra Leone.
“It’s better now,” the 20-year-old said to the BBC. “The last time I met a guy, we negotiated for flesh to flesh (unprotected sex). After we have sex, he denied to [sic] give me my money. He ran off with my money that I had worked for and even my phone. I tried to fight with him. That’s why he hit me on the face…my body. He fight me and run.[sic]”
She shrugs off the battering nonchalantly, simply stating that she is used to it by now. It is an industry that she has worked in since she was 14-years-old. Had he paid her, Fofanah said the price for sex without a condom would have been 50,000 Leones ($5.60) – double the price of using a condom.
The country was still reeling from the decimation of a bloody civil war, which resulted in over 200,000 deaths. Then in 2014, the outbreak of Ebola delivered another problem to a society already riddled with poverty, strife, and gender inequalities. The death of many parents left orphaned children – which included thousands of young girls and adolescent girls. Social services fell apart and numerous schools closed down. With no parental support or protection, the only alternative left for these girls was to turn to a life of street prostitution.
In 2015, the Ebola Orphan report by the charity, the Street Child, stated that over 12,000 children had lost a key caregiver whom they depended on and that they faced extremely challenging and perilous circumstances. Those challenges and risks included child labour, sexual exploitation, poverty, stigma, and abuse, which threatened the future safety of an already vulnerable group of children.
Sinneh Kamara, a coroner forensic technician working in Freetown, told the Guardian that every month he buries more than 10 sex workers aged between 13 and 26. “They die from HIV, they die from cold, bronchitis and pneumonia.”
Furthermore, prostitution is illegal in the country, making it virtually impossible for the girls to receive protection or fair treatment from the police. The women are frequently targeted by law enforcement officers. They are arrested for “loitering”, and unless they can bride the police with a substantial amount of money, they could be locked away for months. Sometimes, police officers pressure the girls into giving them sexual favours.
The Ebola crisis also saw a rise in teenage pregnancy by around 50%. This could be attributed to girls reportedly being forced to have sex for basic necessities such as food, water, and other sustenance. Rapes and sexual violence are also not uncommon. And since abortions are not legal, girls in this position are also at higher risks of undergoing unsafe abortions. A 2015 World Health Organization report identified Sierra Leone as having the worst maternal mortality ratio in the world, and complications from unsafe abortion procedures were responsible for 10% of these deaths.
Fatmata Kanu, an 18-year-old, told the BBC that she needed at least 7 or 8 customers each night to be able to maintain herself and her two younger sisters. She said that some of the men she has seen have had diseases, but she is the only guardian that her sisters have and she has to pay for their school fees.
“If my mother hadn’t died of Ebola, I wouldn’t be doing this. At the end, she wasn’t able to do anything – even talk. She couldn’t talk and no one around her could understand,” Kanu continued. Her eyes reddened and her face crumbled. She bowed her head into the palm of her hands as a barrage of tears trickled down her cheeks.