Climate change forcing young girls into sex work

The effects of climate change are apparent in our day to day lives. We feel the days get warmer, increased droughts, forest fires, cyclones, and flash flooding. As the global climate crisis worsens, it negatively impacts human health, safety, food, water, security, and socio-economic development, particularly in low-income countries.

Climate change has severely impacted countries reliant on agriculture, particularly countries in Africa, reducing opportunities to earn an income. The year 2020 was the fourth-warmest year for the African continent since the year 1910, and as average global temperatures are expected to rise over the coming decades, this could lead to desertification and smaller harvests in Sub-Saharan Africa. Insufficient and unpredictable rainfall has wiped out crops and livestock, leaving farming communities with little to no food to eat and sell. For example, in 2016, farmers in Eastern and Southern Africa experienced the most severe drought in decades, which dramatically reduced harvests and left many families hungry.

As global warming continues to devastate rural agriculture, young women in Africa have been forced to migrate to urban areas in search of work to support their families, and sadly, due to a lack of jobs, into prostitution. It is estimated hundreds of girls from the nation’s rural regions have joined the sex trade in towns and cities after droughts and flash floods destroyed their crops.

Cavo, a 15-year-old girl, discusses her experiences and reasoning as to why she became involved in the sex industry

Cavo is the sole provider for her mother and grandmother, and they are reliant on her income to live. Despite three different jobs, it is still not enough to provide food for her family, and on some days they have no food at all, therefore, she began prostituting her young body. She explains her reasoning in turning to sex work: “I sleep with men because I have to support my mother. She is suffering because of hunger. She says “If men come, then I sleep with them. If I deny them, how will I survive?”
She goes on to explain how climate change is to blame for this: “I wouldn’t be doing this if it weren’t for the drought and hunger. I’d be working and studying like other children.”

If men come, then I sleep with them. If I deny them, how will I survive?

–Cavo, a 15 year old sex worker

Cavo’s story is only one out of thousands of girls living in rural areas who have turned to sex work to survive the devastating impacts caused by drought. As food prices increase due to scarcity, more girls are turning to this type of work to feed their families. This puts Cavo and girls like her at risk of getting pregnant or sexually transmitted diseases like HIV.

Teenage girl, Chipo, whose name has been changed, describes how she became involved in sex work

“In 2020, the year I finished school, I expected to plant soybeans so that I could pay fees and rent a room. The rains came but they turned into floods and washed away my project.” Therefore, due to severe droughts, she states: “I could not supplement my education because of no money. Later on, I found myself joining sex work.”

The stories told by these girls describe how climate change is a prevalent issue that is forcing underage girls into the sex industry, as they have no other choice, in order to live and support their families. In addition, in countries such as Zimbabwe, it is a criminal offence to solicit for sex, which makes it difficult for young women to report wrongdoing against them to the police, making the issue a greater problem.

I could not supplement my education because of no money. Later on, I found myself joining sex work.

–Chipo, teenage sex worker

However, there are plans to address this issue. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) plan to launch a 138 million U.S. dollar investment to avert the consequences of drought and crop failures in Eastern Africa and the Horn. The FAO’s plan will divert funds to purchase seeds and inputs for drought-stricken farmers. Cash-for-work programs will also allow able-bodied people in drought-affected areas to earn additional income while building up agricultural infrastructure, while those unable to work will be supported with direct cash infusions. However, as this plan has not yet been fully funded, its effectiveness and impact cannot be measured yet.

Nevertheless, women are disproportionately vulnerable to the effects of climate change, exacerbating existing gender disparities. This needs to be addressed promptly in order to avoid the continuation of young girls becoming involved in the sex industry.

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