The teenage girls cannot remember how many men they have had to sleep with in the seven months since COVID-19 closed their schools, or how many of those men used protection.
Painfully, they recall times when they were sexually assaulted and then beaten up when they asked to be paid — as little as $1 — to help feed their families as jobs evaporated during the pandemic.
From their rented room in Kenya’s capital, the girls say the risk of getting infected with the coronavirus or HIV does not weigh heavily on them in a time when survival is paramount.
“If you get $5 in these streets, that is gold,” says a 16-year-old, seated on the small bed she shares with the 17-year-old and 18-year-old she calls her “best friends forever.” They split the $20 rent in a building where every room is home to fellow sex workers.
According to UNICEF, the U.N. children’s agency, recent gains in the fight against child labor are at risk because of the pandemic. The world could see the first rise in the number of working children since 2000. The U.N. warns that millions of children may be forced into exploitative and hazardous jobs, and school closures exacerbate the problem.
Mary Mugure, a former sex worker, launched Night Nurse to rescue girls who followed her path. She says since schools in Kenya closed in March, up to 1,000 schoolgirls have become sex workers in the three Nairobi neighborhoods she monitors. Most are trying to help their parents with household bills.
The youngest, Mugure says, is 11.
Each of the three girls sharing a room was raised with several siblings by a single mother. They saw their mothers’ sources of income vanish when Kenya’s government clamped down to prevent the spread of the virus.
Two of their mothers had been washing clothes for people who lived near their low-income neighborhood of Dandora. But as soon as the first local virus case was confirmed, nobody wanted them in their homes, the girls say. The third mother was selling potatoes by the roadside, a business that collapsed because of a new curfew.
As eldest children, the girls say they took it upon themselves to help their mothers feed their families.
The girls had been spending their free time as part of a popular dance group, and they were paid for gigs. But when public gatherings were restricted, that income ended.