Beatings, insults, rape ... Prostitutes in the city of Mbuji Mayi in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) live very tough lives. Rejected by their society and physical abused by their clients, sex workers have found support from the Collective for Integrated Economic, Social and Cultural Development (CODESCI), an NGO that seeks to create awareness, with respect to the rights of these women, through advocacy and community programmes.
Jeannette became a prostitute five years ago in Mbuji Mayi, a town in the province of Kasai-Oriental, south of the DRC. The 40 year-old woman sells her body for a dollar per session to meet her food needs. "She did not choose" to do this job. Janet was once married and lived with her four children. But after her divorce, thrown out and penniless, she was forced into prostitution. But in the DRC, just like in many countries in Africa, sex workers often serve as scapegoats. "They beat me up, they insulted me. It was a tough situation to bear," says she.
Unfortunately, Jeannette’s is not an isolated case. Of the 400 prostitutes in the city of Mbuji Mayi, the majority have fallen victim to sexual assault, physical and mental violence in a backdrop of general indifference. It is not uncommon for their clients to force them to have unprotected sex or even hit them without the police intervening.
Respecting female prostitutes
"Sex workers have no value. For the population, they belong to an inferior group of people," says Patrick Cibangu, CODESCI coordinator. Since 2009, the organization has been fighting against prejudice while pushing the rights of women. Through awareness campaigns, CODESCI has been educating the local community to respect sex workers as well as their rights as women and fellow human beings. "People know they have rights and that violence is punished by the July 20, 2006 law," says the coordinator.
Following their findings, CODESCI decided to organize a day of advocacy in Mbuji Mayi in favor of sex workers in the month of October last year, 2009. And the results are rather encouraging. The action that sought to mobilize the political-administration, police and judiciary, religious leaders, civil society and prostitutes seems to have borne fruit. "For the first time, I felt encouraged by the people, I came out of hiding. Even the police are now inflexible with clients who maltreat us," says Jeannette.
But more remains to be done. Celestine Mbaga, Human Rights consultant to CODESCI, continues to advocate for the education of "night patrol police to change their behavior vis-à-vis female prostitutes", and "judges and police officers to take complaints from sex workers seriously (…) There is still much groundwork to be done to change attitudes".
14 year-old Prostitutes
A long and difficult process, hampered by lack of financial resources. It is for this reason that the NGO could not operate in the areas surrounding four essential diamond mines, located around Mbuji Mayi. There, between 40 and 100 sex workers live and work in brothels. Most of them between 14 and 18 years. According to Jeannette, three quarters of these girls are orphans left to fend for themselves. "The scenario is fairly cliché, they have no family. They were lured by a friend and have allowed themselves to be recruited," observes Patrick Cibangu.
But for now, child prostitution continues with impunity despite the signing of a decree by the provincial governor and the passing of a law to discourage the presence of young girls in the mining sites.