Blessing’s room is small and stuffy, and around the mirror are pasted photographs of her children, 13 year-old Estelle, 10 year-old Peter and nine year-old Alice. Every night Blessing looks at them as she brushes her hair and puts on her single pair of yellow heels. Then she walks along the dusty path from her home to the main road to look for customers, men who spend a dollar to lie down in the grass with her and have sex.
In one of the photographs, yellowed and wrinkled in the heat, a smiling Alice wears her school uniform, a white blouse and green pinafore. Blessing unsticks the photograph from the mirror and hands it to me. Yes, I’m a prostitute, she says, but then my children are in school.
Blessing calls herself and her friends hopojos, or sex workers. She missed out on school during Liberia’s civil war between 1999 and 2003 and, like many young people here in Bomi County, has been left with no education and no skills. This town, Tubmanberg, was the scene of one of the worst massacres during the war. Most women with children here are single mothers, many of them working as hopojos because they can’t find anything else.
Meanwhile, the men who should be their husbands are so traumatised, and so disempowered by their own lack of schooling and subsequent unemployment, that they no longer want responsibility, marriage or relationships. Instead they search for no-strings sex. Earlier I’d met John, a former child soldier, who rolled up his sleeve and showed me the machete scars on his arm. ‘We just don’t feel anything anymore,’ he admitted. ‘How can we have relationships when we saw our mothers raped and killed in front of our very eyes?’ John has no job, and told me he sometimes wishes he was a girl too, so that he could sell his body for money.
That afternoon I meet some of Blessing’s friends in a zinc-roofed hut. It’s still and hot and the sunlight filters through the wooden shutters, dust particles dancing around our foreheads. The women tell me about the rapists and customers who got them pregnant, how selling sex is the only way they can feed their children. The room grows hotter and their answers bleaker. ‘My life is so miserable,’ says Mamawa. ‘But what’s the point in crying, because who will come to help me?’
Kassa began sex work when she was ten, and gave her two children away to other families because she couldn’t support them. Silver wears a t-shirt that says ‘Don’t Hurt Me’ across the front in gold letters. She was gang raped in the war by four men. Her face is impassive when I ask how she feels now about sleeping with strangers for money. ‘It doesn’t make me feel fine,’ she murmurs, ‘but what to do?’ Carmen sobs as she tells me how she too was raped, age eleven, and how, if she doesn’t go on the streets, she and her son can’t eat.
Afterwards, I ask them whether love exists between men and women. They murmur collectively and shake their heads as though the answer is obvious. ‘Love?’ says Blessing. ‘Just leave it alone.’
The atmosphere lifts when we talk about solutions. All these women are desperate to leave the streets. They want to run businesses and support their kids through school. ‘I always tell my children that education is the key to success,’ says Blessing, and I think of the photograph and her smiling daughter on a new, hopeful path. Carmen leans forward with eyes blazing with strength, as she tells me that she can do anything a man can do. For these women, a bright future is no longer about love or marriage; their eyes are now on other prizes.
‘Someday we’ll be gone and our daughters will be left,’ says Kassa. ‘If they’re educated and they can work, they won’t be like us. That’s all I want.’
‘Liberia’s Daughters of War’ was first broadcast on BBC World Service’s From Our Own Correspondent, presented by Pascale Harter, on Saturday June 26 2014. Listen here.
All words and concepts ©JaneLabous. Image ©MarcSchlossman.