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"I felt like a slot machine"

Ange was 15-years-old when she ran away from home. She moved in with some friends and had to sell sexual favours to make ends meet. She ended up just one of many exploited sex workers living in utter misery in a cluster of rundown houses in the Bukavu district of Kadutu, in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

By Yves Zihindula and Gaïus Kowene, Bukavu

Five years after coming to Bukavu, Ange was a mother and still struggling. One night after trawling unsuccessfully through the local nightlife in search of clients, she is approached in a club by a strange, elderly woman. The two ladies get acquainted over drinks. “She offered to take me back to her place and help me make it as a sex worker,” recalls Ange.

A helping hand?
Perhaps naively, Ange jumped at the chance of moving into one of a group of 27 boarded-up houses. “The woman reassured me that I could leave my son with her and she would look after him. It sounded as though she just wanted to help me get through my rough patch. It all looked good.”

The next morning the young mother and son move into their new home which they share with two other young women, also prostitutes.

The elderly woman quickly sets the “rules”, especially with regards to rent: fifteen dollars per person per week. “It was a bit strange because she never mentioned earlier what the total rent amount was.” Ange agrees as she is more concerned about her son. She hopes her charm and a bit of luck will help her make enough money.

Dream turns sour
But soon, the dream turns into a nightmare. Clients are scarce and she is unable to earn enough to pay the rent. “The woman did not like this. So she decided to find us clients with whom she directly negotiated the rates,” Ange explains. “I felt like some kind of slot machine. At times, I would sleep with several different men as they walked into my room.”

Today, the 23-year-old Ange is in a healthcare centre following an attack of malaria. Her son has joined her, away from the bars and clubs.

“I am homeless at the moment and hardly have anything to eat. I rely on other patients’ food to feed my son,” says the young mother, before admitting that these “tough times” have made her reflect on her future. “I think I am ready to return to a normal life. But I doubt my family will welcome me back.”

Hospital arrest
Every time the wind blows, Ange adjusts the grey scarf around her neck. A male nurse prowls suspiciously around us as we talk, as though to remind us that we are in a medical facility.

But actually he’s watching us for another reason. Ange has been put under house arrest for the past month by the resident doctor. She is not allowed to leave the small Kangabo healthcare centre until her hospital bill is settled.

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This article is part of the RNW archive. RNW is the former Radio Netherlands Worldwide or Wereldomroep, which was founded as the Dutch international public broadcaster in 1947. In 2011 Dutch government’s decided to cut funding and shift RNW in 2013 from the ministry of Education, Culture and Science to the ministry of Foreign Affairs. More information about RNW’s current activities can be found at http://www.rnw.org/about-rnw