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COTE D'IVOIRE: A dollar or less per trick

Photo: Anne-Isabelle Leclercq/IRIN
The Marché Forum - one of the biggest markets in Abidjan
Abidjan, 21 April 2010 (PlusNews) - A small group of nervous looking girls hang about in the bustling bus station in Adjamé, a working-class neighbourhood of Abidjan, Cote D'Ivoire's commercial hub, carefully watched by their 'vieux pères' – their protectors or pimps – who hold machetes or knives. A trick is often negotiated for barely a dollar, and generally without a condom.

When IRIN/PlusNews visited the group, accompanied by Cavoequiva, a local non-governmental organisation (NGO) providing care and support to vulnerable young people, the girls dispersed as soon as they saw that the NGO had brought visitors.

"They are scared they will be punished by their vieux pères if they talk to us," said Clément Irié, head of Cavoequiva. "They don't like seeing new people - some of the girls here ran away from home and have changed their names so as not to be found. When they bring people, the girls tell us off for stopping them from earning a living."

One of the young girls had an infected sore on her wrist. "The other night some men tried to rape her; she tried to escape and was hit with a machete," said Mamadou Ouattara, a Cavoequiva fieldworker. A few minutes later another young girl, barely 10 years old, told Ouattara that she could no longer urinate, complaining that "it burns".

Government estimates put the number of people living in Adjamé at 250,000, but up to two million people - travellers, transporters, traders and shoppers from all over West Africa - pass through the area each day.

Population mapping to identify areas of vulnerability has been carried out with funding from the United Nations Population Fund; unsurprisingly, the bus station and the Marché Forum a few streets away, one of the biggest markets in Abidjan, stood out as the two sites most in need of humanitarian and HIV/AIDS interventions.

"Every day I see violence, rape and drugs," Ouattara said. Yet few activities target highly vulnerable groups like orphans and vulnerable children, partly because the prevailing insecurity makes it is hard for most NGOs to reach these areas.

At the bus station "the young people do not even let the police in - they have knives. Sometimes the police fire shots [in the air] to scare them off, but the police never come in. The authorities are doing what they can, but they don't have the resources," Ouattara said.

The situation is becoming more urgent. "These young people are more exposed to HIV and other illnesses than any other group, so we need to start with them," Irié said. The young people come from all over the country and even neighbouring countries.

Members of Cavoequiva regularly visit at the bus station and encourage the young people to come to their offices, located in a quiet street in the neighbourhood, for advice, support and food, and sometimes just to have someone to listen to them, but also to inform them of the risks of HIV, encourage them to be tested, and provide them with condoms when they are available.

"We locate the female leaders and go to them to prepare the others and encourage them to come to the organisation," Irié said. But "the girls say to us, 'You always come and talk to us about AIDS, but you don't do anything for us - we are tired of listening, we are hungry'."

''I have a man, he's a driver, but he doesn't give me anything to eat ... So I take clients but I don't tell him''
Looking for information and care

In an empty part of the dilapidated building that houses the Marché Forum, five young girls, all pregnant, are gathered. "I have a man, he's a driver, but he doesn't give me anything to eat," one of them, a very young girl, told IRIN/PlusNews. "So I take clients but I don't tell him."

Four of the five girls said they had been tested for HIV, but admitted that they did not regularly use condoms. "If they find us with condoms, they rape us because they say if we have some, then that is what we are there for," one of them said.

The clients, vieux pères, police, security guards, travellers, and sometimes the young people themselves, are all involved in this violence. Despite their exposure to the risk of infection, their knowledge of HIV/AIDS is slight.

If a girl is HIV-positive, Cavoequiva refers her to a health facility for treatment. "If we refer some of them, we don't hear anything back and we don't find out what happened to them," Irié admitted.

Although Cavoequiva receives some money from donors, it mainly funds its interventions through a small-scale business enterprise selling fish and bottles of gas.

In 2008, with the support of Save the Children, Cavoequiva carried out a small-scale reintegration project involving 10 young girls and managed to stop eight of them from getting involved in sex work.

"Girls on the street were telling me to do that [sex work], but I didn't want to," a 12-year-old girl from Mali, who was previously a porter, told IRIN/PlusNews. She was able to set up a small business selling sachets of water and is now able to assist her family.

Irié called for a better response to this growing problem. "We need to help these young people as soon as they arrive on the streets, rather than wait. If we take them straight away, we can save them."

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Theme(s): Children, Care/Treatment - PlusNews, Health & Nutrition, HIV/AIDS (PlusNews), Prevention - PlusNews, Urban Risk,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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