Many of the thousands of children that wander the busy streets of Dakar, the capital of Senegal, are sexually active but few have any knowledge about the risks of HIV.
"One sees eight-year-old children who already have several male and female partners who are older than they are," said Adjiratou Sow Diallo Diouf, author of a 2005 study on the impact of HIV/AIDS on Dakar's estimated 6,000 street children.
The 30 children, aged between 8 and 17, Diouf questioned for the study revealed sexual relations that were both homosexual and heterosexual and rarely protected, leaving them highly vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases including HIV.
More than 70 percent of the children surveyed said they had multiple partners, often other children and one third admitted that the sex was not always consensual. "Sometimes they are forced into sex, and there were cases of rape of smaller children by older children," said Diouf.
Occasionally, the children have sex with young women who do laundry in the working class suburb of Médina. "Some women give them work but they want to sleep with them in return," explained Diouf.
Most of the children or 'Fakhmans' (derived from 'fakh', which means 'to run away' in Wolof, the most common local language) as they call themselves appear to have left their family homes voluntarily as a result of divorce, violence or abuse.
Economically and socially excluded, they wander the sprawling Sandaga market in the heart of the capital often appearing drunk. They are in fact high from sniffing t-shirts soaked in "guinze", an industrial thinner.
According to Diouf, the 'Fakhmans' are regular drug users. For a few hundred francs, obtained by begging or stealing, they can buy a daily dose of 'guinze' and escape their difficult realities for a while.
According to Diouf's study, 60 percent of 'Fakhmans' have never been to school. More than half of those interviewed had their first sexual experience before the age of 14 and often by as early as eight.
Without guardians, they are excluded from health services and neglected by most available HIV/AIDS information and prevention programmes.
Half of the respondents did not know how HIV was transmitted and 40 percent were unaware of how to protect themselves from infection. While two thirds of the children admitted to having sexual relations, less than 10 percent of them used condoms. The others "did not know how to use them", lamented Diouf.
Le Samu Social Sénégal is the only NGO that provides street children with socio-medical care. Two nights a week, small groups of children in tattered clothing wait for the Samu van to bring them small quantities of food and basic medical care.
Samu teams have worked hard to build trust with the occasionally violent minors and have become their only link with the adult world. Last year, when hoodlums tried to assault members of the NGO on their rounds, a group of street children came to their rescue.
According to Isabelle de Guillebon, who runs Samu, this relationship of trust has encouraged the children to speak freely to Samu staff about their risky sexual behaviour. "They are not altogether aware of the problem. They are always under the influence of drugs. One does not think of danger in such a state," she said.
While conducting her study, Diouf organised workshops at the Samu offices to educate the children on STDs and HIV. "The workshops were very good. They didn't talk in the beginning, but after we became friends, they were comfortable and relaxed. They told me things they did not mention before," Guillebon said, adding: "One of the children confirmed to me that there were homosexual activities in the group when this had been a taboo subject for the children before."
Legislation in Senegal, like that in many other countries, does not allow children to be tested for HIV without the consent of their parents, a situation that Diouf described as "scandalous". UNAIDS estimates there are 5000 children living with HIV/AIDS in Senegal. The country, with a population of 11.5 million, has a prevalence rate of 0.9 percent.
"There is no programme for the street children and they do not have adequate medical care," she said. "If they cannot be tested [for HIV], interventions will be too late."
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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