MAROUA, Cameroon (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Djamila lowers her eyes and nervously fiddles with the veil covering part of her face. She has bathed, put on her nicest clothes and is heading out to a busy crossroads called the “Old Manor” in Maroua, capital of Cameroon’s far north.
This is where the 16-year-old meets her friends most nights – not for fun but to walk the streets. Since Boko Haram ran them out of their villages, the girls turned to sex work to survive.
“I go look for money to feed myself,” Djamila said in the quiet of a nearby office building, her eyes fixed on the floor. She hesitated before continuing.
“I sleep with men and they give me money.”
Three years ago, she was a happy middle school student in the village of Amchide on the Nigerian border. When the Islamist militants attacked in 2015, she was separated from her parents and fled into the woods.
Now she has joined the ranks of what social workers say are a growing number of child sex workers in Maroua and nearby cities, driven there by violence and offered little support.
“Because of poverty and Boko Haram, girls from 10 to 16 years old are prostituting themselves in the streets of Maroua,” said Ezechiel Marvizia, national coordinator of the Association for the Protection of Children Separated from their Families in Cameroon (APEEFC).
Marvizia estimates there are about 150 underage sex workers in Maroua, and more in towns such as Mora, Mokolo and Kousseri, though there are no official figures.
“It’s difficult (to help) because Boko Haram keeps attacking and young people keep fleeing their villages,” he said.
Djamila and a younger brother walked for days, carrying nothing, after they fled Boko Haram.
“They burned, raped and killed everyone,” said Djamila. “Three years later, I don’t know what happened to my parents.”
She found an aunt in Maroua but was not offered shelter – the family already had too many mouths to feed.
Boko Haram has killed tens of thousands of people during its nine-year insurgency to carve out an Islamic caliphate in the Lake Chad region, expanding from its base in northeast Nigeria.
More than 240,000 people are currently displaced within Cameroon, according to the U.N. migration agency.
The child sex workers in the far north come mostly from this uprooted population who inhabited the border zone frequently targeted by Boko Haram, said Marvizia.
Many were separated from their families, but some girls interviewed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation lived with their parents and were still forced to sell their bodies.
“It’s thanks to this money that we can eat and buy small things,” said Leslie, a shy teenager in Maroua who turned to sex work after fleeing a Nigerian border town with her family.
Like the other girls, she earns between 500 and 1,000 CFA francs ($1.80) per client.
Prostitution is illegal in Cameroon and punishable by up to six years in prison or a 20,000 to 500,000 CFA fine. But the girls who fled attacks do not fear arrest.
“Anyway, we’ve seen worse with Boko Haram,” said Hawa, 18.
“These people shattered our lives. What more can we become? I dropped my studies. I am nothing,” she said through tears.
Given the massive needs of Boko Haram victims in the region, child prostitution among the displaced has been “forgotten” by international organizations, said Marvizia of APEEFC.
A handful of small associations are working with the girls, but they said they had little means to help – a problem local authorities recognize.
“The problem is due to the lack of actors and financial means,” said Mahamat Sale, a regional government delegate for the promotion of women and families.
“The demand is great, the structures are insufficient.”
Social workers roam the streets to inform girls about the dangers of prostitution.
“I teach them to believe in the future, to protect themselves against sexually transmitted diseases,” said Adjidja Hassan, member of a regional organization combating violence against women.
“But to get these young girls off the streets, you have to teach them a job skill, to reintegrate them,” she said, adding her association does not have the funds for this.
In its 16 years of activity, APEEFC has taken 62 girls off the streets and referred them to training centers where they learn sewing and other crafts. But it lacks the means to provide training and do sensitization campaigns, said Marvizia.
“Most often, they don’t use (contraception) because they are ignorant and don’t even know what a condom is,” he said. “Many become pregnant and others catch sexually transmitted diseases.”
Several girls laughed when asked by the Thomson Reuters Foundation if they used protection during sex, without responding to the question.
In the “Old Manor” neighborhood of Maroua, music gradually rises as the night goes on. Women sell grilled fish and men peddle goods. Young girls come and go aimlessly, watching men sip their beers in multicolored chairs in bars.
“They’ve suffered too much and now they think their lives are worthless,” said Hassan, the social worker.