Ramatu Fullah is a 27-year-old woman in the Pujehun district of Sierra Leone. She comes from a poor family and, for years, had to earn her living as a sex worker to take care of her two children. Recently, Ramatu learned skills that enabled her to change her trade through an awareness-raising campaign supported by the USAID West Africa Regional Health Office’s Action for West Africa Region II (AWARE II) project, managed by Management Sciences for Health (MSH). Today, Ramatu sells acheke, a local delicacy, on the streets of Sierra Leone.
Women and HIV & AIDS in Sierra Leone
Many young women turn to sex work in Sierra Leone where poverty is high and opportunities for decent employment are rare. According to the United Nations Statistics Division, HIV & AIDS prevalence in Sierra Leone rose from 1.1 to 1.6 percent from 2001 to 2009. Women are three times more likely to contract HIV than men. Prevalence among female sex workers is feared to be considerably higher.
The Agency for Community Empowerment Participation and Transformation (ACEPT), a nongovernmental organization in the southern region of Sierra Leone, has implemented many HIV and AIDS projects. The West Africa Ambassadors’ Fund (WAAF) grants enabled ACEPT to extend their activities to most-at-risk populations, including female sex workers.
Amid Few Options, Ramuta Finds New Employment
Barri chiefdom has 25,000 people and sits on the main road to Liberia. The chiefdom attracts a melting pot of people including truck drivers, drug pushers and peddlers, and commercial sex workers. ACEPT works in the Potoru community because it is home to the most sex workers of any town in the chiefdom. Young girls aged 15 to 18 years travel this route seeking money for sex.
At 21, Ramatu Fullah joined them after dropping out of school due to unintended pregnancy. Saddled with two children to feed, no support from her family, an incomplete education, and no husband, Ramatu said life became unbearable.
“I decided that the easiest means for me to survive was to become a commercial sex worker,” said Ramatu.
Then Ramatu participated in the USAID/AWARE II-supported awareness creation activities and training for HIV peer educators, conducted by ACEPT. Armed with new information, Ramatu wanted to quit commercial sex work, but she had no alternative means of livelihood. ACEPT gave her 200,000 leones ($46) cash to undertake petty trading in her community. She opted to sell acheke, a food made from cassava root.
Her life is now transformed; the stigma she used to carry is a thing of the past, she says. “I am confident that my dignity will soon be restored.”
Not only is Ramatu now able to take care of her two children and her aged grandmother but she is also an advocate for HIV prevention. “Information changed more than my outlook in life; it changed my trade from sex worker to acheke seller.”
Niagia Santuah is consultant to the AWARE II project.