The teenage girls cannot remember how many men they have had to sleep with in the seven months since COVID-19 closed their schools, or how many of those men used protection.
They said that they have been sexually assaulted and then beaten up when asking for payment — as little as US$1 — to help feed their families, as jobs have evaporated during the pandemic.
From their rented room in Kenya’s capital, the girls said that the risk of getting infected with COVID-19 or HIV does not weigh heavily on them in a time when survival is paramount.
“If you get US$5 in these streets, that is gold,” said a 16-year-old, seated on the bed that she shares with the 17-year-old and 18-year-old she calls her “best friends forever.”
They split the US$20 rent in a building where every room is home to sex workers.
The UN International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) said that gains in the fight against child labor are at risk because of the pandemic.
The world could see the first rise in the number of working children since 2000.
The UN said that millions of children might be forced into exploitative and hazardous jobs, and school closures exacerbate the problem.
Mary Mugure, a former sex worker, launched Night Nurse to rescue girls who followed her path.
She said that since schools in Kenya closed in March, up to 1,000 schoolgirls have become sex workers in the three Nairobi neighborhoods that she monitors.
Most are trying to help their parents with household bills.
The youngest is 11 years old, Mugure said.
Each of the three girls sharing a room was raised with several siblings by a single mother. They saw their mothers’ sources of income vanish when the Kenyan government clamped down to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Two of their mothers had been washing clothes for people who lived near their low-income neighborhood of Dandora, but as soon as the first local case of COVID-19 was confirmed, nobody wanted them in their homes, the girls said.
The third mother was selling potatoes by the roadside, a business that collapsed because of a new curfew.
As eldest children, the girls said that they took it upon themselves to help their mothers feed their families.
The girls had been spending their free time as part of a popular dance group, and they were paid for gigs, but when public gatherings were restricted, that income ended.
“Now I can get my mom [US$1.84] every day and that helps her to feed the others,” one of the girls said.
Elsewhere in Nairobi, single mother Florence Mumbua and her three children — aged 7, 10 and 12 — crack rocks at a quarry.
The work is backbreaking and hazardous, but the 34-year-old Mumbua said that she was left without a choice after she lost her cleaning job at a private school when restrictions were imposed.
“I have to work with [the children] because they need to eat and yet I make little money,” she said. “When we work as a team, we can make enough money for our lunch, breakfast and dinner.”
The 16-year-old sex worker and her two friends said they hope that they would not need to do this for the rest of their lives, but they think their chances of returning to class are remote.
“Where we come from, we were some sort of role models,” the 16-year-old said. “Our neighborhood, if you get to 16 without getting pregnant and are still in school, then you have made it. Having avoided pregnancies, we were this close to graduating from high school and making history.”
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