This work is dangerous, exposing women to violence and the risk of contracting HIV/AIDS.
However, with the help of UNHCR, women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are taking a different path.
Juliette* is just 17, however she has gone through more in her life than most people twice her age.
Juliette lost everything at a young age; her father and mother died and violence forced her to leave her home village in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
When she arrived at a refugee camp in Masisi, DR Congo, Juliette had no money, no friends and no family to help her.
Without any means to support herself or earn an income, Juliette turned to sex work to get by. “I saw others doing it,” says Juliette.
“I had no food, and I wanted to keep going to school. A man came to see me. He told me that he would pay for school for me.
I did it, but then he did not pay me. He did not give me anything.”
Juliette’s story is all too common among young refugee women, who are looking for any means to support their education, to buy food for their children and support their families.
Women doing sex work are much more vulnerable to contracting HIV/AIDS and are exposed to violence on an almost daily basis.
While Juliette was working, she was scared of falling pregnant and of contracting HIV/AIDS, but she did not know how to get information to protect herself.
Juliette did not receive any help, until one year ago, when UNHCR began a project in Masisi, to educate women, help them plan their families and prevent HIV/AIDS and the sexual exploitation of women.
Juliette did not only learn valuable skills for herself – she now also educates other women.
“[Through UNHCR] I learnt about condoms and about planning children. I learnt that if women have too many children, they risk falling sick. I decided to become a peer educator.
I now show women how to go to the health centre, how to use condoms and how to protect themselves.”
The health centre, funded by UNHCR, provides family planning advice to women, prenatal medical help to pregnant women and also provides anonymous testing and treatment for HIV.
The availability of education and the health centre has been life changing for Juliette, and for many women like her.
The health centre provides support for women to return to school and earn an income outside of sex work.
“I had left school but [they] told me that they would help me go back to school,” says Juliette. “I am now in secondary school. I started yesterday.”
*Name changed for protection reasons.
2.7 MILLION PEOPLE ARE DISPLACED WITHIN THE DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO.
WOMEN WHO PERFORM SEX WORK ARE SIX TIMES MORE LIKELY TO CONTRACT HIV COMPARED TO THE GENERAL POPULATION IN THE DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO.
350 RAPES ARE REPORTED EVERY WEEK IN THE DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO.
UNHCR is working in refugee situations around the world to ensure that the needs of women are met, that women are protected and have equal access to the aid provided.
When women and girls are safe and are able to participate equally in school, work and leadership, the whole community benefits.
In the DRC, UNHCR is working for change. UNHCR funds the rape crisis centre and health clinic in Masisi, where women receive medical assistance, counselling and assistance in reporting their sexual assault to the police.
Education programs in refugee communities are in place to make sure that women know about these services and how to access them.
With the help of Australian donors, in 2014 more than 31,000 Congolese people were educated about sexual violence and sexually transmitted diseases.
Empowering women is not just about protecting them in the short term. UNHCR is funding education and training programs for women so that they can find jobs and earn a steady income to support their families.
The skills that these women gain in these programmes serve them not just in the immediate refugee situation, but further on, benefitting their families and communities.