“Custo-man, come nah! I fresh and ready oh. You’nwant small ting seh?” This is the common approach of most commercial sex workers across Monrovia.
Standing on the outskirts of community bars and entertainment centers, Jartu starts as early as 7pm – just after dark – scanning the streets, looking for ‘men with needs’. Dressed in a short denim skirt half-way up her thigh and a sleeveless pink blouse with matching slippers and braids flowing down her back, she’s showing all the signs that she isready for business.
But since the outbreak of the Ebola epidemic in Liberia, the fear of the disease has curtailed the nocturnal social activities ofmanyin Monroviaparticularly commercial sex workers.
However, with the growing knowledge about the disease in the country, more and more sex workers have withdrawn from loitering the streets in prevention of the dreaded disease. Yet some are brave enough to continue working.
Jartu, 25,was one of four young women on the lane, and the only one who consented to an interview. She is a mother of 2 andlives in Caldwellbut does her night time business at “Zimbabwe”, a slum on the edge of Point Four, New Kru Town, Monrovia. Her two kids are from the same father, who eventually left her for another woman. “I couldn’t do anything to support myself and that’s how I ended up doing this kind of work,” she says.
Speaking to the Daily Observer, Jartu acknowledged that Ebola is more harmful than gonorrhea, syphilis and HIV/AIDS, and she has been very cautious of the disease.
“This Ebola virusthat people talking about is the worst disease,” she said.“From what we are hearing and seeing in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone is very bad. It is more satanic and dangerous and is causing serious problems for our business at night, because all the men are afraid of the virus.”
But in order to feed her two children, she feels she must take her chances to make ends meet. She wants the government, through the Ministry of Gender and Development and other women’s agencies to assist her and others like her with food and alternative empowerment (skills training) if they are to survive during this epidemic.
“My brother, it is not easy. This virus is very wicked. We are no longer going in the street because we don’t want to contract it. But two days now – no food to eat and some of our children are starving,” she lamented.
She says during normal times, she was able to win as many as 10 clients per night, earning herself few hundred dollars.
“We have been listening to the news,” she said, when asked what preventive measures she and her colleagues have been taking.“People have been telling us to wash our hands regularly. We have been doing that and maintaining general cleanliness around us.
“Unfortunately, our work involves contact that is so personal, it is only God that can save us from the disease,”she noted.
Asked further if it were possible for her and her colleagues to stay away from this business for some time, Jartu suddenly looked alarmed. “How can that be?” she asked.
“Do you want us to starve? We will continue to do our work. But if government can help us too, I think that would also help them to contain the further spread of the virus.”
She said although business has been dull in the last two months, she disagreed that it was due to the outbreak of the Ebola virus in the country.
She continued: “Our business has good and bad seasons. Sometimes things change, too. For instance, when month ends, we have more customers than at other times. But then, a single person can come and change things for days or even more. He can pay more for a girl than she has been making for days. So our business is not predictable. Also, it depends on whoyour client is. Sometimes we charge according to how you look.”