Child prostitution at Polihali

• Underage girls sleep with older men to support their families • Teen pregnancies, HIV infections go up • Sexual exploitation of children condemned

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By ‘Majirata Latela

The past two years have seen a dramatic spike in prostitution in Mokhotlong where young girls, some underage, swell the Polihali construction site on a daily basis to engage in sometimes covert sex-for-money activities with older men.

This at some point even prompted the local councillor and the District Administrator to enlist the help of the police in searching the camps and retrieving underage girls who were believed to be selling sex to construction workers. 

Big projects are regarded as vehicles for development which are intended to enhance the quality of human life. However, the negative impacts that come with them have created conflicts between those who run the projects and the surrounding communities who develop a feeling of detestation.

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With the advent of the Polihali project in 2018, ‘Mathabang Lephoi (not her real name) of Popa village, less than 10kms from one of the campsites, looked forward to getting a job and building the dreams of her five children. But that hope has been replaced by disgust.

Her two daughters, aged 15 and 21, have since started ‘dating’ the older men from the campsite. She was only made aware by neighbours who were gossiping about her daughters’ lifestyle. They were among the hordes of other girls who were said to be making frequent nocturnal visits to the campsite.

“I was not aware that they had joined that group since I always found them in their bedroom, sleeping, every morning when I woke up. So I was surprises when I heard they were part of the girls from this village who went to the campsite for overnight orgies. 

“When I confronted them, they denied sleeping with those construction workers, but admitted to attending the parties. But when they had a tiff with the other girls, their little secret came out. That’s when I learned the truth that my children had become prostitutes.

“I don’t know what else to call them; information coming out of the camps is that what these girls are doing is getting paid for sex, not having affairs with these men. They are selling their bodies to those men for money if they are not dating them. I worry most for this little one (the 15-year old) because in the end nothing good is going to come out of what she is doing; she will end up becoming a single mother at her tender age,” Lephoi said, clapping hands in disbelief.

She does not worry much for the elder daughter who she said was married before, and has two kids to take care of and is old enough to make her own choices.

Having failed to get a job at the project, she now despises the day the project came to their midst and wishes it could have gone elsewhere.

theReporter tried to talk to Lephoi’s girls who were sitting under a tree with some friends but they were dismissive and not interested in sharing their story. Unable to make eye contact with this journalist, they only described the allegations about them as untrue, before filing off.

We managed to corner one of the girls at Tloha-Re-Bue village, who claimed to be 16 even though her friends said she is still 15. She said she only goes to the campsite to visit her a boyfriend who she said she is not married and is from somewhere in South Africa. She said the boyfriend spoils her and showers her with money to show that he loves her. She could not, however, divulge what she does for the boyfriend in return for money and the easy life he is giving her.

“I started going there in December when there was a Christmas party at the camp because my boyfriend had invited me. I only had alcohol that day and came back home in the morning with the others. My mother had allowed me to go there because she knew I had a boyfriend in there.”

Another girl, 15-year old Relebohile Thethe (not her real name) said she does not associate with what her peers do. She acknowledges the constant pressure of her friends who tell her about their experiences and show off the money they get from their ‘lovers’. The construction workers keep badgering her to visit them whenever their paths cross.

She said some girls initially go in there without knowing that those men are going to demand sex.

“There have been rumours of girls who were escorted out in the middle of the night because they wept when the men demanded to sleep with them. There are girls who recruit others with the promise that those men only give them money and alcohol when it is not really the case.

“One of my friends once went in there pretending to be me when the security guard asked her to identify herself. He knew my father, and he came to my home in the morning to report me to my father. My dad was about to spank me but, luckily, the security guy confirmed it wasn’t me he had seen the previous night.   

“About a month later when the security guard visited my parents, he found my friend and confirmed it was her. Of course she denied everything but we could all see she was lying.”

One of Reitumetse’s cousins, who is also 15, fell pregnant from her debaucheries in the campsite, and will not be able to further her studies. The cousin only found out when she was pregnant that the man who had impregnated her and even promised to marry her, is actually married. He encouraged her to terminate the pregnancy, but she was too scared.

The councillor for Malingoaneng Electoral Division, Mosa Lerafa, said parents usually report their girls missing, only to find them cohabiting with the men in the campsites.

“We have had to involve the police in some instances, when we could not locate them. Some of these girls are underage, yet they claim that their parents given them permission to go to the camps because they come back loaded with cash. Some parents actually encourage this kind of behaviour. They are basically selling their own kids for money; they have now turned the children into breadwinners.

“I am sorry to say this, but I am very disappointed with the conduct of these parents,” Lerafa said. 

The Mokhotlong District Administrator, Serame Linake has also admitted that since the commencement of the Polihali project, teenage pregnancies have escalated in the district, according to Mapholaneng Clinic.

The Mapholaneng health centre recorded 80 teenage pregnancies between November 2019 and July 2020, an increase of 31 percent from 61 in November 2018 to July 2019. It had also recorded seven new HIV infections and 19 cases of STDs among pregnant women in the town since the beginning of the year.

“This spike in teenage pregnancies has shocked us, so much so that we have asked for another clinic to be erected at Khotsang to relieve the burden of people going to Mapholaneng for health services, and to widen sex education to these girls.

“I am more disappointed in these men who come here to work for their children who are the same age as these ones they sleep with. One would expect them to guide the girls and teach them the results of early sex, yet these older men are the ones who take advantage of the naïve girls.

“We are even more disappointed, as the community of Mokhotlong, that this project which was supposed to bring us nothing but good lives is actually giving us more problems,” Linake said.

The DA added that, when asked why they sleep with those men who are old enough to be their fathers, the girls said they are breadwinners for their families. Of course we it is a well-known fact that many families in the rural areas are now head headed by minors as parents have died of HIV/AIDS related sicknesses.

Some of the minor girls told this publication that they are only in it for the money; they said their parents are unemployed parents as a result of the global Covid-19 pandemic which has exacerbated poverty.

Meanwhile, Save the Children Organisation’s project manager for Children on the Move and Children Emergencies, Nyika Machenjedze says there is a list of jobs that children can be allowed to do, which does not put them under any duress or exploit them but rather gives them financial literacy.

Machenjedze indicated that Lesotho’s Children’s Protection and Welfare Act of 2011 states in no uncertain terms that no person shall employ a child in exploitative labour. The law describes labour as exploitative if it deprives or hinders a child access to health, education or development.

“So in this case where children are forced by poverty circumstances and involves being lured into having sex with older men, that in a nutshell is sexual exploitation, and the authorities need to take action on it,” Machenjedze said.

The International Labour Organisation defines commercial sexual exploitation of children as sexual abuse by the adult and remuneration in cash or kind to the child or a third person or persons.

The child is treated as a sexual object and as a commercial object. CSEC includes the prostitution of children, child pornography, child sex tourism, and other forms of transactional sex where a child engages in sexual activities to have key needs fulfilled, such as food, shelter, or access to education. It includes forms of transactional sex where the sexual abuse of children is not stopped or reported by household members, due to benefits derived by the household from the perpetrator.