Zera (name changed to protect privacy), 16, lives in the Kibera slum of Nairobi, Kenya and is the mother to a 9-month-old baby girl.
Her mother died of stomach cancer in 2018 when Zera was 13, leaving her as the sole provider for her two siblings. She dropped out of primary school in order to earn money through odd jobs, but eventually turned to prostitution.
Now HIV-positive, she hopes to continue her education when her child turns 3 and eventually advocate to end the exploitation of children in Africa. She begs the authorities to do a better job of protecting young girls and educating them about the dangers of the sex trade.
Kibera Slum: TheKibera slum in Kenya’s capital city of Nairobi is the biggest in the country. About 250,000 impoverished people live in closely packed, 12-by-12, shacks that often house at least eight people and are built with mud walls, a corrugated tin roof and a dirt or concrete floor. Kibera residents face deplorable living conditions, including lack of food, electricity, and access to clean water and healthcare; poor security; and no sewage facilities, meaning raw, untreated sewage is a constant health threat.
Residents of Kibera also experience rampant unemployment, drug and alcohol use, teen pregnancy and prostitution, and high rates of disease including malaria, cholera, dysentery and HIV/AIDS infection, among many others.
Teen Pregnancy: Data from Kenya Data and Health Survey (2014) show that nearly 1 in every 5 girls between 15-19 years of age is either pregnant or already a mother and that 13,000 teenage girls drop out of school annually because of pregnancy. According to a publication by Rutgers and the Government of Kenya, Kenya’s adolescent birth rate is 96 per 1,000 girls, and among all unmarried, sexually active adolescent girls, 59.3% are not using any method of contraception.
Period Poverty: So-called “period poverty” is a prevalent issue for low-income girls and women in Kenya. Research shows that 65% of Kenyan women and girls are unable to afford sanitary pads, and the stigma of menstruation and lack of supplies can keep girls out of school for up to a week each month. In addition, studies have shown that 2 out of 3 of pad users in rural Kenya receive them from sexual partners.
NAIROBI, Kenya—The wind blows outside my window, shaking the trees and stirring up dust. As I hold the tiny hands of my sleeping 9-month-old baby girl, I think about how innocent she is, unaware of the battles I have already fought at the age of 16.
A life of hardship in the Nairobi slums
When my mother died when I was 13, I was left alone to step up and parent my two siblings, who are still young. Life was hell.
I dropped out of school and took whatever paid job I could find. Hustling for work was hard and unreliable—some days I found something, other days I just went home empty-handed. Even for a low-level position like cleaner, few believed I could manage because of my young age.
People looked down on me, and those who did offer me work often paid me a pittance—not even enough to cover my siblings’ food. Only a few, touched by my situation, would offer help and sometimes even give me food to take home.
Despite trying my best, there were days we went without meals. This devastated me; I could not stand seeing my siblings aching from hunger.
Eventually, we lost our home and were forced to seek help from strangers. An ailing 70-year-old woman who was living alone took us in on the condition that I help take care of her. I agreed happily, as it meant my siblings had a place to stay.
Our new grandmother was a true good Samaritan to us. She received a monthly pension for the elderly; as meager as it was, she used it to provide food for us. I felt I could breathe easier for a few months.
However, her health started deteriorating, and we had to channel nearly all the pension funds she had to her medication which was quite expensive. There was no way we could abandon someone who had cared for us when everyone else turned away. Once again, I took up manual jobs like cleaning, washing, and cooking in hotels and homes to help provide food and additional money for our grandmother’s medication.
Turning to prostitution during Covid-19
Things started falling apart in March 2020 due to COVID-19. The government forced the country into a lockdown and imposed a curfew in major cities like Nairobi. Hundreds of businesses closed as a result, and those of us who depended on those businesses for survival stopped getting the few manual jobs we had found.
Hunger and destitution threatened us from all sides, and I had to look for other ways to keep them at bay. Everyone says money is the root of evil, but I disagree. Poverty is the root of all evil.
With no jobs to earn the money my family needed, I was influenced by friends who told me about the men they serviced for cash.
Without thinking of the repercussions of my decision, I tossed myself into the business of selling myself for sex for as little as $1 to buy food for my family. It sounds absurd, but when you have no other options and your family is hungry, you will do anything just to stop their stomachs from rumbling.
With no knowledge about contraceptives or the risk of getting HIV/AIDs, I slept with many different men. Many girls my age or even younger lived this lifestyle—in addition to food, the money these men paid for sex also covered sanitary towels for our monthly periods, an expense often out of reach. They took advantage of our desperation and ignorance, using us for their pleasure and paying nearly nothing.
Pregnant at 15
A few months into this new lifestyle, at 15 years old, I found out I was pregnant. A child carrying another child, I felt hopeless and alone. Pain, shock, and frustration clouded my mind as I tried to figure out what to do next.
I confronted the man who impregnated me, hoping against the odds that he would support me through the pregnancy. He denied it, calling me a prostitute. I begged him on my knees, tears rolling down my cheeks, but all was in vain. He chased me away and threatened to kill me if I ever looked for him again.
I felt myself shut down in the face of this rejection, almost unable to bear the burden of what I now faced. I was just trying to provide for my family, and now it felt like my life was over. However, I decided to keep the pregnancy.
My grandmother told me to visit the pregnancy clinic for care. Little did I know, things were about to get even worse.
Receiving a devastating diagnosis
The morning of Aug. 14, when I was about four months along, I made my way to the pregnancy clinic at a nearby hospital.
A young nurse asked me questions about my pregnancy. After several questions and hearing my circumstances, she gasped and asked if I had done an HIV test. She led me to another room and a man there started asking me questions in a friendly way about my sex life. He talked about the importance of knowing your HIV status, and I got tested.
As I waited for those results, my heart pounded and one thought turned over again and again: I hope it’s negative.
A few minutes later, the man called me back in and started speaking to me about the HIV virus. I knew something was wrong with the way he looked at me, the tone of his voice, even his facial expressions. I told him to just give me my results, and he did: I was HIV positive.
Terror filled my mind; all I could think of at that time was how I was going to die the next minute. I rushed out of the room and found somewhere to cry. I sobbed, thinking about all I was facing as a young, pregnant teenage girl who is HIV positive and has a family that depends on her. That’s who I was.
I cried and cried until I felt I had released all of my pain. When I returned home, I didn’t share the news with anyone. I didn’t want to break their hearts or add to their burden.
I hid my depression, anxiety, and stress behind a smile. There was no other option.
I found a glimmer of hope
Right before I was due to deliver, I heard about an organization that offers support for young mothers in the slums. I reached out, and the group assigned me a mentor who listened to my story.
That kindness and psychological support was everything. It helped me free my mind from the chains of the traumas I had lived and focus on the future for my child.
The organization provided us with food and other necessities like sanitary towels. When I gave birth in January it helped provide the supplies needed for the newborn. This support has eased my constant worry and given me the hope to go on and to dream of a better life for myself and my little girl.
It’s not an easy path, but it is the one I am on.
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