By day, the infamous Anthony’s Provision Shop at the Lapazee, Airfield Community in Monrovia sells soap, creams and candies. By night, children use it to sell sex.
“I have been on the street for so many years. Seven years on the street. I was just a baby. My parents are all dead and they left me alone. I am the only person that left.”
Massa, which is not her real name, is 17 years old. She left her home in Grand Bassa County after her parents died in the war. She was 10 and has been on the streets ever since. “I can meet 4 or 5 men sometimes [in a day]. Some of them give me 70 [Liberian Dollars], some of them give me a 100. We can go right behind the shop or in their cars. We don’t use condom we just do it like that,” she says.
Sitting on her friend’s bed, wearing torn up underwear, and a lapper tied around her bulging belly, Massa reveals she is four months pregnant. Looking down at her feet, she says she is too ashamed she doesn’t know who the father is.
But Massa is not alone. At Anthony’s Provision Shop, where Massa says she often finds her customers, girls who look as young as thirteen, sit and drink with men. Many look old enough to be their fathers, brothers or even uncles. Wearing tight, revealing tops and short skirts, they dance to the loud music playing outside. The shop has no room to accommodate girls who sell sex so they spread lappers between the makeshift houses by the shop.
16 year old Mary, which is not her real name, comes here to find customers too. With tears in her eyes, she says she has had sex with men for as little as five Liberian Dollars, the same price as a pouch of water. She describes how she got into prostitution when she was just 12 or 13. “I met with one of my friends and left my parents in Bomi and came in Monrovia area. My parents had no money. I used to do it in [Bomi] too. “
In Liberia, a country recovering from 14 years of civil war, children are being driven into prostitution through poverty. “Before the war, Liberia was a developing country, and the war came and made it under developed, so the poverty rate is high,” says Counselor Zeor Daylue Bernard, the acting Chairperson of the Association of Female Lawyers of Liberia, AFELL. The Counselor says children often have no choice and are forced to go out on the street and bring home money for the family. “There are some parents who even encourage it. They say you see your friend out there bringing in this to her parents and you want sitting here and you want me to cook before you eat. Because of that those children are forced out there. Some of these aren’t volunteering, they are little children and their parents push them to it.”
Massa and Mary’s stories are not isolated cases. The NGO, Women Aid Incorporated, says it is now seeing more children on the streets selling their bodies than women. Quantifying just how many children are involved in prostitution is not easy but Program Coordinator Princess Taire says, “It is alarming and it needs intervention.”
The organization runs a safe home where some of the luckier girls from the street end up. They receive counseling, food, clothes and a roof over their heads. WAI Executive Director, Salimatu Kamara says, “Children are in streets and when their parents bring them to us for counseling, we will find out that they have been sodomised or raped. We are talking about 11-19 year olds.”
She says the children are selling sex to survive. They use the money to pay for school fees, food, clothes and even help support their families. Child prostitution takes two forms in Liberia. There are the children who stand on the streets and in the clubs who may have sex with up to four or five men a day. But there are also young girls in the community who have what is known as a ‘sugar daddy’ or a ‘godfather’ a man who gives them small things in exchange for sex. “The men choose the children because it’s cheaper. And sometimes they don’t even pay them. Some of them are sick,” says Salimatu Kamara. “Looking at a 9 year old or an 11 year old. If you can actually look at a child like that, you are sick,” she adds.
The Executive Director also says some parents do not want to talk about what is happening to their children. “If a big man comes and is friendly with their girl and you want to advise the parents, they think you are just jealous because of their daughter’s luck. That is how they term it.” But funding is a problem. The Women’s organization is appealing to donors to help them support more projects to protect these children.
Back on the streets at another infamous site, Samoa Bar in the Airfield community, the young meet the older ones to exchange sex for money too. Small girls with make up on their faces, big earrings and revealing clothes, smile shyly at the men on the opposite table. In the last year, the Government promised to close both Anthony’s Provision Shop and Samoa Bar, but the spots are still open and still attend to their costumers every night. In downtown Monrovia girls can be seen standing on Gurley, Randall, Center and Merlin Streets late at night. Some are outside clubs or motels, others stand on street corners.
Both boys and girls stand by the Center Street grave yard, some fighting and others standing and watching the fight. A place where the dead are buried and the outside is used as dump site, is now an area where children like Massa and Mary search for older men to help them feed them for another day.
“These are little children. What are the police doing with these men who solicit sex? What are they doing?” says Counselor Bernard from AFELL. “The law needs to be enforced,” she adds.
In Liberia, prostitution is illegal. If the girl is under 18, the sentence for the man is life in prison as this counts as statutory rape. It is classed as a 1st Degree Misdemeanor for someone who promotes prostitution which carries between six to twelve months in prison. For someone who facilitates prostitution, it is classed as a 2nd Degree Misdemeanor and the sentence is between one and six months in prison.
But Counselor Bernard says she doesn’t think the law on prostitution has ever been used. “I haven’t heard of any case where a case of prostitution was reported and then prosecuted. We haven’t even had one.”
This sexual exploitation of the country’s children brings many more problems with it. WAI Program Coordinator, Princess Taire, says, “Maybe they’ll get involved in drugs. While there, somebody may rape them. Because of that rape they may encounter any of the STIs whether curable or incurable. Based on that they may get pregnant, which leads to school dropout and eventually illiteracy.”
Rape is something many of these street children know all too well. A recent survey in Monrovia found in three out of every 8 rape cases, the girl was under twelve. 17 year old Massa says she has been forced to have sex with men in the past but describes the most traumatic time. “They were in a group. They were coming from all over. It was late and they surrounded me. I was scared and I couldn’t talk,” She says. “The other one hold my hand, the other one hold my foot and they took my clothes off and that’s how they raped me. There were 7 of them. Nobody came to my rescue. When they got through that’s how they left me. I never went to the hospital.”
The Acting Chairperson of AFELL is calling on the Government to really intervene in the situation. She says the young people are the future leaders of this nation. “We cannot sit and let the youth of this nation go down the drain and be putting Liberia on the map not in a positive way but a negative way,” Counselor Bernard says.
For Massa and Mary, a life on the streets is something they both desperately want to leave behind. “I want to tell the people they must take me from the street and send me to school,” pleads Mary as she fights back the tears. Massa has a life ahead of her as a mother. But without anyone to turn to and nowhere to go, she has no idea how she will survive. “Some days when I see my friends going to school, sometimes I can sit and think of my parents when they were alive. When I don’t see them going to school I can feel happy on the street.