05.11.10

My Drive to Save African Sex Workers

On a trip to Congo, peace activist and Daily Beast Africa columnist Leymah Gbowee witnesses the violent arrest of a refugee girl forced into a bleak life as a sex worker. Inside her rage and helplessness.

In the past two weeks I have cried angry tears on more than occasion. Each time, it has been because of the tragic fate facing a young African girl.

On April 24, I attended the funeral of a young Liberian refugee who had died of AIDS-related causes. I met this very promising young woman in September 2002 at the West African Peacebuilding Institute, when I was leading a women’s movement for peace in my home country, Liberia. A friendship blossomed and she joined our Mass Action Campaign. In 2003, she was the youngest member of the sit-ins for peace held in Accra, Ghana. At the time she told me she wanted to be a journalist.

The men pulled the girl out of the hotel room clothed only in panties, kicking and punching her for resisting. I ran to follow and she reached out to me, pleading for help.

A month ago, I got a message from a friend that this young girl had suffered a stroke, was diagnosed HIV-positive, and had a brain infection. She died on Easter Sunday.

At her funeral, I cried for a life that had been wasted and wondered how many more young Africans with fine prospects are losing theirs lives based on limited choices—a direct result of their economic status.

Take Action: To help build the African sexual rights movement, support Akina Mama wa Afrika, whose goal is to empower sex workers to stay healthy and improve their lives. Learn more through AMwA’s partners, HIVOS and the Open Society Institute. I was once a young refugee myself, and I endured the constant harassment of men who imagined that every refugee girl was ready to have sex for some form of cash. At the funeral of this young woman, there were many other refugee girls who came skimpily dressed. I kept asking myself, ‘How can we help them, how can we reach them, how can we as African women ensure that they don’t all die because some man neglected to protect them?’ "

These questions continued to haunt me as I traveled to Congo to do some work with Congolese women, who live in a nation plagued by war and mass rape. On the fourth day of the trip, I was sitting in my hotel room chatting online when I heard a scream: “Somebody help me!”

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Nicolette Bopunza, age 14, stands outside her house in Mbandaka, Congo. She works as a sex worker, charging about 50 cents for sex and $2 for a whole night. (Per-Anders Pettersson, File Photo / Getty images)

The activist, mother, and feminist in me ran outside in only a piece of wrap and a shirt, to see a young Congolese girl on the balcony of a hotel room crying. She was shouting in not so perfect English, “This is all you wanted, sex me and throw me out! You are a bad person! I don’t ever want to see you again!” I continued to stand and watch. She said to me, “Mama help me, after being bad to me, now he is calling the police.” In less than five minutes, about four police officers and several men in plain clothes came running to the scene. The girl was pulled off the balcony and back into the room, as she screamed for help and asked, “What is my crime?”

The men then pulled her out of the hotel room clothed only in panties, kicking and punching her for resisting. I ran to follow and she reached out to me, pleading for help. I asked the guy who was apparently the commander of the whole operation to release her to me, but he said no, that she was a constant problem for the hotel. More men continued to pound and kick this girl.

As three police officers and two plainclothes men dragged her away, she tilted her head in my direction and said, "Mama, help me!” They had handcuffed her, and she was obviously headed for a police cell. What became of her in the cell that night, only God can tell.

All I could do was join her in screaming. My scream was for my own helpless state at the moment, for her pain, and for the many young African girls living in situations of conflict, who are constantly being exploited. My scream and angry tears were for the psychopaths we call leaders in Africa, who give us nothing but pain and misery. My scream was for the misery of so many African women who live at the mercy of men and boys.

My scream blended with the screams of my Congolese sisters. The rage subsided after 15 minutes and all that was left was a feeling of helplessness for every African refugee girl. I believe even as they walk the streets offering sex, they are looking at us African women, the seemingly strong ones, and screaming silently like the Congolese girl I saw: “Mama, help me!”

Take Action: To help build the African sexual rights movement, support Akina Mama wa Afrika, whose goal is to empower sex workers to stay healthy and improve their lives. Learn more through AMwA’s partners, HIVOS and the Open Society Institute.

Plus: Check out more from Giving Beast, featuring news, video, and amazing photographs of people, places, and issues that need our support.

The Liberian peace and women’s rights activist Leymah Gbowee is The Daily Beast’s Africa columnist. As war ravaged Liberia, Leymah Gbowee realized it is women who bear the greatest burden in prolonged conflicts. She began organizing Christian and Muslim women to demonstrate together, founding Liberian Mass Action for Peace and launching protests and a sex strike. Gbowee’s work in helping to oust Charles Taylor was featured in the documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell.