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Food crisis drives young women to sell their bodies

Map of Niger
Une bonne partie du territoire nigerien se trouve en zone sahélienne, une région aride aux confints du désert du Sahara (IRIN )

Ide can have sex with Mariam, a novice on the Niamey night scene, several times for only two or three dollars. “The most important thing for her is having something to put in the cooking pot the next day,” he said.

Mariam is among a wave of young women recently taking to the streets of the Niger capital to sell their bodies to buy food for their families.

“I have to do it in order to eat,” said Hajara, 16, as she walked along Rue de la Joie or “Pleasure Drive”, in skin-tight jeans and t-shirt, constantly popping chewing gum as she spoke.

All the young women insist that their real names not be used.

Sometimes Hajara has to be with four or more clients a night, which bothers her. “But we have to put up with it. It is with the money we earn here that we support our families – well, at least we can help them. And it allows us to clothe and feed ourselves.”

Finding enough to eat is a problem every lean season in landlocked Niger, ranked last of 177 countries in the UN’s human development index for 2005. But this year – in the aftermath of 2004’s locusts and drought that wreaked havoc across the arid Sahel – regions of the country have been gripped with widespread severe malnutrition.

Millions of families have lost their livestock, their livelihoods, their every survival mechanism. For these young women, survival can be found in the city streets at night.

Nigeriens have seen this “seasonal” prostitution during lean periods in the past.

“During the famines of 1974 and 1984, the same phenomenon was seen in Niger’s cities,” says Hamadou Hassa, a man in his 70s living on the outskirts of Niamey. “As soon as the famine is over, this type of prostitution will diminish for sure.”

He adds that he understands the girls’ position. “Don’t blame these girls out of hand. In the face of famine, it is extremely difficult to have dignity.”

Aicha Idrissa, a seller in a Niamey market, also empathises with the women.

“I’m shocked to see these young women give themselves over to prostitution to survive,” she said. “But on the other hand, I understand them. They have been forced by their situation.”

But other compatriots are less forgiving.

Halilou Bakwaye, a union leader in Niamey, would like to see the authorities to clean up the streets. “The government must put in place a vice squad to round up these young prostitutes and their clients,” he said. “These practices, even if they are temporary, must change and immediately.”

Some lament the practice as an affront to Islam, in a country that is about 90 percent Muslim.

Hajara said she is forced to sell herself, despite that it is humiliating and against her religion.

“It’s not with pleasure that I do this work,” she said. “Tradition, Islam and even just plain common sense forbid a woman to sell her body. Today, I feel shamed to my very core,” she said. “But we left our village; we are without any resources. We lost two cows, three sheep and five goats to the famine.”

Hajara said her fiancé awaits her in her village; she plans to marry as soon as she can return there.

Many of the young women work as domestic servants by day, changing into their snug, revealing clothes to walk the streets by night.

“I’m employed as a maid at the home of an expatriate couple who pay me 20,000 francs CFA (US $37),” tall, light-skinned Sitta says, in between greetings to passing men she hopes to lure.

“They feed me, true – but my salary is too little to meet my family’s needs. That’s why you see me here,” she says.

But Sitta insists her health is not for sale.

“Above all I preserve my health,” she says. “I refuse to have sex without a condom. I’ve seen cases of AIDS here in Niamey and for all the gold in the world I would not contract that disease.”

Just recently, she says, she turned down an offer of 10,000 francs CFA ( US $18) to sleep with a man without protection.

Hajara walks up and down the street, complaining that clients are scarce this particular evening.

“Since I arrived tonight, not one man has approached me. Yet, I’ve put on my makeup, I’m well-dressed….Yesterday, I did a good job. I was able to bring 5,000 CFA francs (US $9) home.”

Meanwhile Ide does another pass around the block on his motorbike looking for Mariam, his current favourite. He says he has not found another that satisfies him like her, so he will wait her out.

After sex and an exchange of a few dollars, he’ll be on his way, and Mariam and her family will be assured of at least something to put in the cooking pot.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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