As I travel through the small central African nation of the Republic of the Congo, the poverty is evident. Dozens of makeshift markets and roughly put together houses line the streets of the nations capital Brazzaville. Thousands of children dart through the dusty streets and small makeshift markets line the sides of the road. The wealth from the country's lucrative oil businesses has clearly not trickled down to the majority of the population.
I've come here as part of my work for my foundation Project Monma in trying to raise awareness about violence and discrimination against women and girls around the world. Having heard about the phenomenon of child prostitution, I wanted to find out more about what was making young girls take up prostitution in this small oil producing country.
Travelling from Brazzaville to Pointe Noire, the country's second biggest city I was able to meet with the staff from ASI, a French based organization working to combat child prostitution as well as a number of other human rights workers.
From the many conversations I held it was clear that for the women and girls of the Republic of Congo the combination of poverty, vulnerability and discrimination have been harsh.
I went to meet Claire Marks, a Human Rights Specialist from the US embassy in Brazzaville. According to Marks, women have equality under the constitution, so there is no official discrimination against women. But culturally there is. There is polygymy for example, where men can have 3 or 4 wives.
Domestic violence is another problem according to Marks. She reports that it's generally considered completely acceptable to hit your wife. With no specific laws against domestic violence, there is very little to protect women from violence.
'The situation for women in the countryside is particularly harsh. There is discrimination against indigenous women in the forest dwelling communities or what they call pygmies. There is a lot of rape and men preying on the younger girls. There is a lot fistula here as well, particularly in the villages,' she explained.
The problems for women do not end there however. Marks states that in many cases women are passed up for jobs and there are cases where women are expected to sleep with their professors at the universities.
Thus, for women and girls trying to survive in such a climate, there are often few opportunities. In cases of extreme poverty, prostitution may be one of the only means of survival.
Joseph Bikie Likibi National Coordinator for Reiper, an organization working on child protection in Brazzaville says while traditionally in Congolese society the girl works at home, in cases of poverty, prostitution is one of they key ways that young girls seek to help their families.
'Girls can start working as prostitutes as young as 14,' he says.
Amelie Lukuba, a capacity builder from ASI explains how most of the girls working prostitution are in a difficult situation. 'There are cases where girls are selling themselves for as little as $1.'
Women and girls face further problems from the Pentacostalist Church. Christian Kouyakaba, a social worker from ASI explains how the church is telling their followers that if there is a problem in the home, it is likely due to witchcraft. Women and girls are most often accused and as a result are then thrown out of the home. With few other opportunities girls often turn to prostitution as a way to survive.
Fear of sorcery also often prevents women and girls from speaking out about violence. 'They believe that if they accuse someone of violence than they will go to a marabout, a local witchdoctor, and they will do a spell against them,' says Kouyakaba. Girls therefore often choose to remain silent about violence they have experienced.
Women and girls are also afraid of the police. Everyone who I spoke with throughout my research in the Republic of the Congo reported that the police was raping young girls working as prostitutes.
'The girls can't go and report the violence because the police rape the girls and steal their money. A lot of the girls were hiding because they had been raped by the police and they were really scared,' explained Kouyakaba.
'There is no real justice in the country. There is no protection,' he continued.
Ronny Roberts and Darniche Enit two brothers from Brazzaville also emphasize that there is very little protection for young girls working as prostitutes in the Congo.
'The police wouldn't protect them. There was a video where the police picked up four prostitutes and put them in the back of the car and then sexually assaulted them. If you want the police to do something for you then you have to pay them. Prostitutes can't afford that. I don't think that the police look at them like human beings,' says Darniche.
The violence facing young girls and women affected by poverty in the Republic of the Congo are stark.
Christian Kouyakaba believes that for the situation to improve, girls who are working in prostitution need to stop being condemned. 'We must also improve the situation for women in general in the Congo. Our culture says girls should not do things outside of her house or her family and so we need to change this. Girls must also speak out against the rapes and all the violence that they are facing. They don't have to keep quiet. When they are attacked they must complain to the police.'
He then looks at me and tells me that I must continue with the work that I am doing. Speaking up for women and girls, it's important he explains.
'Please don't stop,' he says.Suggest a correction