Teen prostitution: Making ends meet in Malawi

Abuse, abandonment and poverty lead Fanne Munyu into the degrading and dangerous world of teen prostitution. Here she reveals her story…

Like it or hate it, teen prostitution is no longer an underground business in Southern Africa's tiny nation of Malawi.
Both parties involved, the teenage prostitutes and their clients, recognise its short-term benefits - money or sexual pleasure and its long-term consequences - Aids, long suffering and a painful death.

Fanne Munyu, a 14-year-old prostitute from Chirimba, Blantyre, sits down next to me on her luxurious mattress lying on her expensive mahogany bed, fit to be in a five-star hotel.

The bed occupies almost all of her sun-filled small rectangular-room, which is only two metres long and one and a half metres wide.

This simple pleasant scene is a misleading backdrop for the sordid story that unfolds.

"This room and my body are my entire life,” says Fanne.

“I call it ‘The Blessed Room’ because this is where I earn my bread and butter.”

Fanne tells me how many reputable chief executives, MPs and even cabinet ministers have spent an hour or more with her in this room.

She reveals that I am sitting on a bed and mattress bought by a certain junior cabinet minister in appreciation of “good romantic services rendered”.

But despite the beauty and neatness of her room, Fanne is by no means happy being a prostitute in what she calls a degrading and dehumanising business.

"If I had an alternative way of survival, I would have called it quits," she says.

Fanne describes her two-year involvement in teen prostitution as the worst but unavoidable chapter of her indigent life.

She sobs as she tells me how her story as a prostitute began.

“My parents died five years ago and I was forced to stay with my brother, who unfortunately was kept by his friend,” she says.

Fanne breaks into tears as she confides in me that her brother's friend used to rape her, every time her brother was away.

"My brother never believed me. I told him what his friend was doing to me, but he did nothing. Looking back I think he was afraid of being thrown out of his friend's house.

“I was tired of being sexually molested against my will. One Saturday, a friend of mine invited me out to a nightclub to have fun. I accepted," she says.

While at the liquor store on the way to the club, Fanne and her friend met a truck driver who promised them both a new start. He took them to the Mwanza border district some 200 km away from their home in Chikwawa.

The driver dumped them there. They ended up spending two months practising the oldest profession in the book.

One day, they met another truck driver, who promised them lucrative jobs in the city of Blantyre. The girls accepted the offer.

Their fears however began when the truck driver stopped at Lunzu Township, about 20 km from Blantyre, and demanded to have sex with them.

After fulfilling his urge, the truck driver told them he was going to hand them to a businessman, who would employ them as waitresses in a restaurant.

They soon realised that they had been duped again when they reached their destination - a sleazy bar at Chirimba Residential Area. There was no restaurant.

"The truck driver rented us rooms, told us we were beautiful enough to know how to survive and left."

For the last two years Fanne has been selling sex to as many as five men a night to eke out a living.

She gets a minimum of ZAR10 ($1) per job, with wealthy clients like the minister who bought her a bed paying up to ZAR65 ($10) for her services.

Fanne is not satisfied with the income she generates, but says she can't quit.

"I am in all this sham because of poverty. There is nothing else I can do to beat poverty and survive apart from selling my body," she sighs.

But is Fanne surviving?

"Yes with hardships. I am now trapped in a cycle of sexual abuse and poverty. I live from hand to mouth," says Fanne.

"I wish I had gone back home, rejoined the society I was brought up and lead a happy life.

"But I can’t go back. It is impossible. My brother is languishing in poverty and he is still kept by his immoral friend. I don't want to go back if that is what I’m going to be faced with," she says.

"It is a tough choice. Either I die of poverty immediately or I carry on selling my body and die of Aids 10 years later."

While Fanne is reluctant to go back to her village in Chikwawa, a local non-governmental organisation called People Serving Girls at Risk (PSGR) believes it is possible to rehabilitate and integrate victims of commercial sexual exploitation back into their communities.

The PSGR says it has already embarked various initiatives to rescue teen sex-workers from the illegal trade.

Caleb Ng'ombo, the PSGR programme coordinator said: "With funding from some donor agencies, including the US Embassy, we plan to set up a home where survivors of teen prostitution will undergo rehabilitation and attend vocational education before they are reintegrated into their communities.

"It was not easy to rehabilitate and re-integrate them back, because the biggest question they posed to us was: ‘What are we going to do when we go back into our communities, where poverty is still rampant?’" says Ng'ombo.

The rehabilitated girls, according to Ng'ombo, face a lot of challenges such as discrimination and stigmatisation. Back in their communities some wives demonise them, fearing that they will entice and snatch their husbands.

As PSGR is hunting for funds to establish a rehabilitation and a vocational centre for teenage prostitutes and trafficked girls, it is already raising awareness among various communities about the dangers of prostitution.

It is also providing counselling services to children trapped in prostitution.

Ng'ombo is of the view that the nation has a daunting task to fight prostitution and child trafficking because there is a market and high demand for sex.

"The problem is that vast majority of men and a great number of women find sexual intercourse pleasurable and many are willing to make sacrifices in order to obtain sex," says Ng'ombo.

People still enter into prostitution despite Malawi's health minister Hetherwick Ntaba revealing that AIDS is killing 10 people every hour in the country, which has made it the leading cause of death with one million people out of the country’s 12 million population living with HIV.

A number of factors force girls into prostitution.

Some of the factors are broken homes, lack of parental care, cultural practices, destitution and peer pressure.

While human rights organisations like PSGR are working hard to rescue teenagers from prostitution, girls like Fanne think these organisation are discriminatory.

Fanne complains that most human rights activists do not consider violence that sex workers suffer as violence against women.

"Prostitution is often exempted from the category of violence against women," she says.

But the health experts points out that prostitution has many health consequences varying from injuries, bruises, broken bones, concussions. This is not very surprising because the clients of most sex workers are drunks, who at times become violent.

Besides the physical abuse, sex workers also suffer from a host of sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV and Aids, chlamydia, gonorrhoea, herpes, and syphilis.

In the wake of these consequences, is Fanne ready to go back to Chikwawa?

"Yes, as long as you give me an alternative means of livelihood," she says cracking a smile, perhaps because we’re talking about her life, rather than her services.