BRAZZAVILLE, Republic of Congo — On the outskirts of the capital here, it is dark and loud in a makeshift bar as Congolese music blares across the room. When we ask two patrons if children are there, they point to one girl and suggest she could be a prostitute. Young and slim, she might indeed be underage.
“There’s nothing more normal in Congo than prostitution,” says Ronny, one of the patrons, as I research prostitution here. “Every bar will have prostitutes.”
Despite being one of sub-Saharan Africa’s largest oil producers, corruption and years of political instability have contributed to extreme poverty throughout this Central African nation, which is often confused with its much larger neighbor, the Democratic Repbublic of the Congo.
In Brazzaville, hundreds of children dart through the unpaved streets. Traveling by train to Pointe-Noire, Congo’s second-largest city and oil-rich, makeshift markets and roughly put-together houses break up the dense jungle. It is obvious that the wealth from the lucrative oil businesses has not trickled down to the majority of the population.
Amelie Lukuba, originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo but raised in France, is working for the Association de Solidarité Internationale (ASI), or Association of International Solidarity, a French-based organization working to stem the flow of young girls moving into prostitution in the Republic of Congo.
Patrolling the streets of Pointe-Noire and Brazzaville at night, a team from ASI looks for girls who are working as hookers, many of whom are 13 to 18 years old. They encourage girls to come off the street and stop selling their bodies to show them that they have other self-worth.
Bienvenu Tsaty of ASI says that most girls become prostitutes because of problems in the family. Sent out to work by their families, prostitution is often their only option. In some cases, girls sell themselves for as little as $2.
“When you are alone and you don’t have parents it’s really difficult for young women to survive,” Lukuba said. “We are in a country that is considered rich because of the oil, but the people don’t receive the benefits. Young girls feel that prostitution is the only way to survive.”
According to the World Food Program, an estimated 47 percent of the Congolese population lives in entrenched poverty. Coupled with a high dependence on imported food, poverty has led to deep food problems in the country, making survival difficult. Many children are unable to attend school.
Violence is one of the main problems for young girls working on the street.
Congo has attracted an influx of foreigners from French oil companies as well as Chinese and Malaysian construction workers, according to the United States State Department. Along with Congolese men, the foreigners are reportedly clients of underage girls, ASI members report.
“One of the new girls here had a Lebanese client, and he gave her an electric shot in her vagina,” Tsaty said. “Sometimes, the girls go to the Chinese clients and there can be five or six men at one time.” The foreign men “think that they can do whatever they want and see prostitution as a chance to exercise power over others. When girls are selling themselves for only $2, they know that they are really vulnerable and this is why they abuse them.”
Lukuba says: “The police don’t care because they don’t consider those girls as humans. There is no protection.”
One human-rights worker in Pointe-Noire who preferred not be named, said: “We are a people who have learned to be quiet. There are too many death and disappearances here. We are used to this, it’s the reality here.”
Violence against girls working in prostitution is common, he said. “Officially, child prostitution does not exist, but we know it does. It is normal to see these girls working as prostitutes in Pointe-Noire, who can be as young as 13 years old, but it doesn’t seem to bother anyone.”
“Officially, there are laws to punish violence against women and girls. However, often those working in the justice system are part of the problem,” he added.
Joseph Bikie Likibi, the national coordinator for Reiper, a child-protection network in Brazzaville, said that one reason that girls may be forced into prostitution is accusations of witchcraft. The Pentocostal church, a popular denomination in the country, is teaching parishoners that when something bad happens to a family member, it is because of witchcraft. Young girls may be cast onto the street because they have been accused of being a witch; they then fall into prostitution.
Fears of witchcraft also prevent girls from speaking out against violence. They fear that should they accuse a man of violence he will then go to a marabout, the witchdoctor who will cast a spell against them.
Women and girls face a further threat of being drawn into slavery. Congo is both a source and destination country for human trafficking.
Congo is considered a Tier 2 country by the State Department, meaning it has not fully met minimum standards of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. Victims are reportedly brought into the country for both sex and labor. Human trafficking is also controlled by armed groups, mostly in eastern provinces where government control is weak, says Freedom House.
Women and girls are brought in from Benin and the Democratic Republic of the Congo as well as the Central African Republic, Cameroon and Mali to be sold into sexual slavery.
Claire Mark, a human-rights specialist with the US embassy in Brazzaville, said in an interview that girls are brought in from Benin on fishing boats to be sold into domestic servitude, many of whom later fall into prostitution. Mark also confirmed reports of a Chinese human-trafficking network in which women and girls are being sold by construction workers who are building a national highway near Nkayi and Pointe-Noire.
The government has made minimal antitrafficking law enforcement efforts, failing to prosecute or convict suspected traffickers. In 2014, the US embassy reported that five children had been rescued and there were 10 cases pending against child traffickers but they were all released without prosecution. Falling oil prices have been blamed for decreased government spending on child labor issues, including inaction against child traffickers.
Meanwhile, reducing the factors that push young girls into prostitution go unaddressed.
Christian Kouyakaba, a social worker from ASI in Brazzaville, said that to prevent child prostitution, more understanding is needed as to why girls are motivated to do so.
“Everyone in the community must be responsible, everyone must do something,” Kouyakaba said. “We must stop condemning prostitutes and improve the situation for women in general in the Congo. Girls must also speak out against rape and all the violence that they are facing. They don’t have to keep quiet.”
That is easier said than done. “We have to improve the girls’ education so that she can take care of herself,” Likibi said. “Girls have to insist that things change. In the Bible, there is a part where women from Israel said, When I wake up like a mother, the country will be in peace during 40 years. Women have to fight for themselves.”
Johanna Higgs is from Perth, Australia. She is working on her Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from La Trobe University in Melbourne and is the director of Project MonMa, a nonprofit group focused on improving women’s lives. She has an undergraduate degree in anthropology and politics from James Cook University in Queensland, and a master’s degree in international development from Deakin University in Victoria. She speaks English and Spanish.