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Diamonds not always a girl's best friend

[Sierra Leone] Progressive women's association (PROWA) in Kono district tries to sensitize vulnerable women and girls on HIV/AIDS. [May 2006]
Victoria Averill/IRIN

"It was after the war you see, when the rebels had killed my mother and my father, burnt down our house, leaving me and my younger siblings with nothing, nowhere to go and no one to look after us," said Rebecca Esano, 25, a former sex worker in Koidu, a town in the diamond-rich east of Sierra Leone.

Dressed in a navy skirt and checked blue shirt, Esano looks identical to the other 300 young women at the training centre, where she showed off some of the tie-dyed garments she had made to sell and described what her life had been.

In 1999, after rebel forces ransacked the town at the height of the 10-year civil war, Esano started working the streets and clubs to meet "rich men" - the estimated 200,000 miners, whose unceasing digging and panning has turned the impoverished Kono district into a lunar landscape of water-filled pits. At night they head to town to blow off steam, and a huge sex industry has developed to keep the miners entertained and spending.

In Koidu the Programme for Women's Association (PROWA) is the only organisation trying to provide young women with skills training as an alternative to sex work.

"Many of the girls here at PROWA were left out of the DDR [disarmament and demobilisation] programmes or are ex-combatants," explained Millicent Suaray, a nurse and social worker with the organisation. "Others are handicapped or war-wounded, and a lot of them were sexually abused during the war."

At the training centre the women were busy at their sewing machines, but Suaray said the organisation did more than just training to empower its students. "We also educate on HIV/AIDS and encourage STI [sexually transmitted illnesses] screening, especially for the girls who have come off the street."

Esano worked the streets for four years and had no thought of a future that did not involve selling her body, when PROWA approached her one night.

"I was about to go with this man when this lady nurse started calling out to me, telling me I had to leave the streets and put my name down for skills training," Esano smiled as she recalled. "I don't think I really believed her. I was thinking, 'How am I going to earn money, how are we going to get money to live?'"

Sierra Leone's brutal civil war disrupted education, and illiteracy among girls is particularly high. Despite the high risk of sex work, Esano knew nothing about condoms and was unaware of the dangers of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Shifting in her chair, Rebecca said she could now list the different ways of becoming infected with HIV, but added that the majority of young girls on the streets do not really believe AIDS is real.

"They think people scare you about HIV/AIDS to stop you having babies," she said. "I think until they see the patients they won't believe in HIV/AIDS, but at the moment no patients will admit they have HIV/AIDS." Like so many people in Sierra Leone, Rebecca believes she does not know anyone who is HIV positive, nor anyone who has died of AIDS.

A 2005 national survey put the HIV infection rate in Kono district at 1 percent. However, the factors that drive the epidemic are present in the mining areas: a high incidence of STIs, widespread poverty and ignorance about prevention.

PROWA encourages women to go for testing for both HIV and STIs, but in the absence of a coordinated approach with government and so many involved in the commercial sex industry, it acknowledges the effect is minimal.

Abdul-Rahman Sessay, deputy director of the National AIDS Secretariat, believes a combined approach, dealing with the mining sector and the wider community in the district, is the only way to ensure the HIV/AIDS message reaches everyone.

"The issue of commercial sex work is a critical issue in Sierra Leone. It is not organised - there are people in settled relationships still engaging in commercial sex work - so we need to tread very carefully, as there is huge stigma attached to it. It is not straightforward, and you need to target these groups as a whole."

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