At 17, she has already lost count of men she has slept with.
But she recalls sleeping with at least three men a day for the past four years.
We will call her Mary. She ventured into sex work at Euthini Trading Centre in Mzimba District when she was 13.
“Mine is a deadly job, but hardships that followed my father’s death forced me into it,” she says. “My mother re-married and never wanted to stay with me.”
Without support, Mary relocated to Zambia to stay with her aunt. But she says life across the border was never easy.
“I became a housekeeper and stopped going to school. I asked why and my aunt banished me back to Malawi,” she recalls.
Mary was homeless when she took refuge in a lodge at Euthini and ventured into transactional sex in which she reportedly earned between K3 000 and K6 000 per day.
“Business usually peaked during the tobacco marketing season, between May and September. Being young, men always flocked to me. Veterans in the trade usually assaulted me and threatened to kill me for pushing them out of business. Thank God, I’m still alive,” she recalls.
Mary quit sex work last September, thanks to a community-based child protection worker who convinced her to return to school.
According to Euthini child protection worker Washington Phiri, sexual abuses against children are rampant in the tobacco-growing area that he has received 10 cases in the past three month.
“Out of these, six girls have been re-enrolled at Kapiri Primary School where Mary is now in Standard Seven,” he says.
The 2015/16 Malawi Demographic and Health Survey indicates that one in five Malawian girls aged below 15 have ever experienced sexual abuse.
Although Mary counts herself lucky to be free from HIV and sexual transmitted infections (STIs), sexual abuse, often mistaken for sex work or consensual intercourse, puts girls at a high risk of HIV infections.
In 2016, UNAids found that 12 500 new HIV infections in the country occurred among young people aged 15-24. According to the findings, 70 percent of these infections occur among young women.
The more sexual encounters girls have, the more vulnerable they are to HIV.
HIV prevalence among female sex workers is estimated at 62.7 percent, six times higher than the national average estimated around nine percent.
“If sexual exploitation of girls is not addressed, there is no hope of stamping out the spread of HIV,” warns Girls Empowerment Network (Genet) child protection worker Fred Nyondo.
Exploitation often takes the form of child marriages, with MDHS and Unicef studies showing half of women in the country marry before age 18.
Although it increases girls’ exposure to HIV, marriages involving minors are widespread in Mzimba where poverty, indifference and a culture of dowry force girls to drop out of school to marry.
“Most people in the district believe that girls are a source of income. This is why child marriages and child prostitution are common during the tobacco-selling season,” he says.
Mary, like most survivors of sexual exploitation who go back to school, has found it difficult to re-integrate into society.
Her classmates and members of her communities mock her, she says.
Omega Kumwenda, her teacher at Kapiri Primary School, says such ridicule has affected Mary’s mental and social development.
“We conduct talks and counselling for pupils to accept and embrace their colleagues who re-enrol after being rescued from marriage or prostitution,” she says.
Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare principal secretary Esmie Kainja says it is not solely government’s responsibility to stop violence against children and adolescents.
“It is everyone’s responsibility,” she says. “Parents and caregivers at home, teachers at school, religious and traditional leaders and caregivers in different child-related institutions; we are all responsible for ending violence against children,” she said.
However, a culture of indifference, the allure of tobacco dollars and poverty militate against the country’s push to ensure every girl learns.
Interestingly, Mary looks to the future with hope, saying: “Everything looks possible.” n