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South Sudan’s women in the spotlight [part 3]

MiCT The Niles
‘If you can’t use your hands to make a living…’: Female sex workers in Juba, South Sudan.
14.10.2012  |  Juba

If you can’t use your hands to make a living, you also have a vagina you can use. It is just another part of your body that serves as a means to an end.” (Focus group, 14 August 2010)

During the long years of South Sudan’s wars (1955–1972 and 1983–2005), many thousands of women were driven into commercial sex. In the post-war period too, with endemic poverty and limited economic opportunities many women are still forced to sell sex to make a living and support their families.

As described by Jolien Veldwijk and Cathy Groenendijk in the book Hope, Pain and Patience: The lives of Women in South Sudan”, the work of sex workers in post-war South Sudan is difficult, often dangerous, and involves substantial health risks.

Juba, the capital of South Sudan, is the focus of this chapter. Recent estimates show that at least 2,000 women and girls are active in prostitution in the city today.

War, poverty, abuse

Other resources that focus on gender in South Sudan:

Small Arms Survey’s Human Security Baseline Assessment for Sudan and South Sudan
UNICEF in South Sudan

United States Institute for Peace

Women for Women in South Sudan

UNDP in South Sudan
War has been a key driver of prostitution in South Sudan. During the second Sudanese civil war (1983 to 2005) roughly 1.9 million civilians were killed and almost four million people were forced to flee their homes, losing their land, their means of survival and their support systems. Lacking alternative options, thousands of women turned to commercial or transactional sex, in a desperate bid to survive.

War continues to play a part in driving prostitution even once it has ended. Many people have no homes, families or communities to return to, and no means with which to make the journey to their places of origin. Thousands of people are therefore still internally displaced all over South Sudan. In addition, ongoing conflict in the border regions continues to fuel displacement.

The wars in South Sudan’s neighbouring countries have also driven many foreign women into Juba’s sex trade. Jennifer, from North Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), who was interviewed for this chapter, tells a familiar story. Years ago, she married an Ugandan soldier from the Uganda People’s Defense Force (UPDF) who had been deployed in the DRC. He already had a wife in Uganda. When he returned to Uganda, he took Jennifer with him. His existing family did not welcome his new Congolese bride, and Jennifer was treated badly. When her husband died, her life in Uganda became unbearable.

Jennifer then moved to South Sudan, where she started a small business. However, after being robbed twice, she was left destitute and unable to continue her business. Unsuccessful at finding other employment, Jennifer saw no other option than to make a living in the sex trade. She went to Gumbo brothel in Juba, where she began to work. It is a source of great concern for her that she does not make enough to send money home to her children, given this was her sole purpose of moving to South Sudan.

Poverty is arguably the key factor that draws women into prostitution. After the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005, an influx of funds for development attracted peacekeepers, aid workers and investors from all over the world to Juba. This attracted poverty-stricken people from areas around Juba and neighbouring countries, drawn by the hope of finding work, but many found themselves with no alternative than to enter into the sex industry instead.

Also read:

‘We were all soldiers’: Female combatants in South Sudan’s civil war [part 1]
‘Sibu ana, sibu ana’: Survivors of sexual violence in South Sudan [part 2]Another interviewee, Rosemary, illustrates this perfectly. She is from Uganda. When her parents were killed by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), she, as oldest sibling, had to drop out of school and get married to ensure that she and her siblings would be provided for. In 2009, after a long illness, her husband died and her life began to fall apart. Rosemary and her two children were forced to remain with her husband’s family. However, his relatives mistreated Rosemary and provided little support for her and her children. Eventually a relative raped and impregnated her.

Her cousin persuaded her to leave her children with their grandparents, and move with her to Juba, to work as a waitress. Facing extreme poverty and exploitation, Rosemary left Uganda and came to Juba to find a better life. However, she could not find work, and eventually resorted to sex work out of desperation.

The stories documented in this chapter also show a clear pattern of women and girls fleeing domestic abuse, and eventually ending up in sex work. Both Rosemary and Jennifer were physically abused by their in-laws. The research also shows a clear connection between rape and commercial sex in Juba. Many of the women interviewed, and in particular the younger girls, reported having been raped or sexually exploited before moving into prostitution -- often on numerous occasions. Several young girls interviewed for the book commented that they entered the sex trade after realising that they may as well make money from the sex acts to which they were being subjected anyway.

Sex workers in Juba face continued poverty, are extremely vulnerable to violence and have to deal with issues such as a shortage of condoms, pregnancies, abortions; often while looking after their children at the same time. These women have no formal institutional protection and are often harassed, attacked or even raped by the people who are supposed to protect them. Child prostitution takes place in almost every brothel in Juba.

Download the bibliography:
‘If you can’t use your hands to make a living…’ Female sex workers in Juba, South Sudan
Most women who resort to sex work also see it as a temporary measure to be endured until a better option is found. However, better options are limited, and most women are unlikely to rise out of extreme poverty without outside intervention. To date, little action has been taken to improve the lives and circumstances of Juba’s sex workers, and at the time of writing, nothing was being done to assist them to find or create viable alternative employment.

When considering the enormous and seemingly insurmountable factors that lead women into the sex industry, it becomes apparent that changing their situations will be a huge challenge. However, for the world’s newest country, it is crucial that steps are taken to protect these women and ensure that they too enjoy human rights and dignity.

Adapted by Cara Meintjes, from Jolien Veldwijk and Cathy Groenendijk’s chapter, ‘If you can’t use your hands to make  a living…’: Female sex workers in Juba, South Sudan” in Hope, Pain and Patience: The Lives of Women in South Sudan. Edited by Friederike Bubenzer and Orly Stern. Photographs by Irene Abdou and Jenn Warren. A Publication of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. ISBN Number: 978-1-920196-36-3. Published by Jacana Media. Available from