Josephina Akamarg was 4 years old when she became an orphan. Raised by her elderly grandmother in a poor household in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, Josephina often skipped school until one day she ran away from home. With no parental support and few prospects of surviving on her own, Josephina ended up making a living as a sex worker – a fate shared by thousands of other young women left orphaned by war and disease. “I had no family and I was alone, so I ended up in the street,” said Josephina, 25.
Poverty, conflict, gender inequality and the loss of parents are some of the many risk factors that make adolescent girls and young women vulnerable to sex work. In Sierra Leone, which is still recovering from the effects of civil war, the outbreak of Ebola in 2014 created a new vulnerable group – the orphaned children of those who died of the disease.
A recent report by the British charity Street Child estimated that the Ebola epidemic left 12,000 children orphaned in Sierra Leone alone. With an average age of 9, the Ebola orphans face stigma, hunger, marginalization and sexual exploitation, the report said. Experts warn that unless measures are taken to protect girls in particular, many will end up being forced into commercial sex, further feeding into the HIV crisis.
Together with partners who focus on keeping girls out of the sex trade in the first place, the Global Fund is working to help young women like Josephina stay healthy and rebuild their lives. Implemented through the Rufutha Development Association (RODA), the Global Fund-supported program provides various forms of assistance, health counselling and prevention services for sex workers in Sierra Leone, helping them protect themselves from HIV.
“RODA has been a family to us and has made us stronger,” said Josephina. RODA is also a home for many young and vulnerable women who have found themselves trapped in a world of sex work and gender-based violence. The group organizes vocational training for trades such as hairdressing, tailoring or catering, so they can make a living away from the streets. Many of the young women have missed out on primary education, so they are offered classes to build basic literacy and numeracy. RODA also holds community meetings with police and municipal authorities to help end the harassment and legal problems the women face daily.
“We tell these young women that they have a future beyond sex work and that they can protect themselves from disease and also go to school or training to leave the street,” said Aruna Rashid, RODA’s project manager in the city of Makeni, east of the capital.
RODA works with about 3,500 sex workers in Makeni. Rashid said most of these women entered the sex trade as young girls to earn money for food after being left without their parents, many of them as a result of a decade-long civil war that ended in 2002. Many also lost parents to HIV and other diseases, and are now themselves the most vulnerable to the disease. HIV prevalence among the general population in Sierra Leone is 1.5 percent; among female sex workers, it can be as high as 9 percent.
Staff at RODA, which was established during the war, say the only way to tackle Sierra Leone’s complex development challenges is by addressing the root causes, but that community projects can make a big difference. “Poverty and development is a structural problem in Sierra Leone, but you need work at the community level to help people’s lives,” said Abu B.B. Koroma, a RODA instructor.
Koroma stressed the importance of working in partnerships to address Sierra Leone’s many development challenges, including protecting orphans and other vulnerable groups. “We have to center on the development of the people.”