By Merveille Kavira Luneghe
KANYABAYONGA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO – Afisa Kanyere Kamate, seated in front of her tiny 16-square-meter (172-square-foot) house made entirely of tar-coated wooden planks, is focused on one worry: ensuring that her six younger siblings have food. At 19, she is their only caretaker.
To feed them, she has made a difficult choice.
“Most of the boys pay me 2,000 Congolese francs [about $1.50] for one quickie, and I ask 5,000 Congolese francs [nearly $4] per night,” Kanyere says.
In a week, she says, she can make 5,000 to 10,000 Congolese francs (nearly $4 to $8), enabling her to afford 10 kilograms (about 22 pounds) of cassava flour, a bottle of cooking oil and beans.
Kanyere and her brothers and sisters are among the estimated 1.5 million displaced from their homes in the DRC. Many come from conflict-torn areas in Lubero and Rutshuru territories seeking refuge here in Kanyabayonga, about 150 kilometers (93 miles) north of North Kivu’s provincial capital of Goma.
Kanyere and her siblings fled from her village of Kibirizi in Rutshuru, about 143 kilometers (nearly 89 miles) away, after her father’s body was found decapitated in September 2015.
Misfortune never comes alone. A few months later, her mother died of malaria, leaving behind four younger brothers and two younger sisters for Kanyere to care for.
“We’re seven children, and all of us live in a small, poorly maintained room,” Kanyere says. When it rains, she says, they squeeze themselves into one corner, because the roof leaks.
Kanyere laments the turn her life has taken, and she tries to protect her siblings from her work.
“There is nothing more embarrassing than working as a prostitute at home when I live with my younger siblings,” she says. “They stay with me the whole time. I’m obliged to sneak away for sex when a man solicits sexual services from me. When I have a client at night, I have to wait until the children fall deep asleep.”
Kanyere says men don’t want to marry her because they’re afraid of taking on the responsibility of raising her younger siblings.
“I feel like my life is a total mess. Worse still, my life is a living death. I am no different from a dead person,” she says.
An estimated 1.5 million people, like Kanyere and her brothers and sisters, who are internally displaced in the DRC are among almost 38 million internally displaced worldwide, according to Jose Barahona, Oxfam’s country director for DRC.
Women and children make up about 80 percent of refugees and are vulnerable to violence during times of migration and displacement, specifically where social structures are disintegrated by war, according a survey conducted by the Howard University School of Social Work.
Such has been the case in the DRC, which has seen 20 years of successive conflicts.
Maurice Muyayalo Kisolu, commander in charge of child protection and the fight against sexual violence for the Kirumba Police Department, says Kanyere is not alone in resorting to sex work for survival. Kisolu estimates that as many as 70 percent of displaced girls living in the town of Kirumba in North Kivu Province are trapped into making similar choices because incoming humanitarian aid is just not enough.
He says his unit was set up specifically to defend women and children, because they are often the hardest hit when conflicts and wars break out. “War-displaced people need to enjoy all the fundamental rights. And so, they have the right to life, protection, security, assistance, asylum [when fleeing from one country to another], housing and comfort,” he says.
Vaghen Masika, 24, a Kanyabayonga resident, says that the state of internally displaced girls is deplorable, especially for those who have lost their parents.
“As a result, they have to fend for themselves in many ways to survive,” she says.
She says a neighbor has chosen to turn to sex work to afford to eat and has forced her children into the sex trade as well. But even so, she says, “the proceeds were still not enough for survival.”
Kahindo Sikuli, a displaced girl, says some make desperate choices: “We’re spending our days roaming around aimlessly in camps. Some of us have managed to land jobs that help them cover their needs. Here, we’re faced with unemployment, leading us to turn to banditry and prostitution,” she says.
Kahindo Mwandu, leader of Mumaluk (Muungano Wa WAMAMA wa Lubero ya Kusini), an association of Congolese women who advocate for women and girls, calls on humanitarian organizations to teach displaced girls the basic trades, such as weaving, braiding and knitting, so that they can avoid resorting to sex work. Currently, there is no group in Kirumba offering these services to help the displaced, she says.
“There is a need for displaced girls to have centers to go to with their problems, to recount their challenges and be listened to for a solution,” Mwandu says.
Kanyere’s only wish is to be able to return home and find enough food for her siblings.
“I call on the government to restore peace throughout the territories of Rutshuru and Lubero, so that we can return home and dig our fields,” she says.
This article was published through a partnership with Global Press Journal.