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Luhihi, Democratic Republic of the Congo – Deborah* walks down a mud alley between houses cobbled together with plywood and sheets of tarpaulin.
On the corner, fuzzy beats emanate from a tin-roofed nightclub. It is only 2pm but drunk men are already hovering at the door, necking beers and milky glasses of moonshine.
Inside it is dark, except for some disco lights that flash green and red. A small group of people are huddled at a table. This place will fill up in the evening, Deborah says, but right now most men are up on the hillside, digging for gold.
She often comes here at night when she is looking for clients.
Deborah, who is 17, works as a prostitute in Luhihi, a town on the edge of a gold mine in South Kivu in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). She moved here a year ago, soon after the most recent gold rush began.
People first started digging in Luhihi in 2014, but when deposits seemed to dry up, most went elsewhere. Then, in May 2020, a man found a large lump of gold and the news quickly spread across the region.
Within weeks, hundreds of miners had turned up with spades and pickaxes. They dug tunnels, some as deep as 30 metres, into the hillside. They now spend their days underground, shovelling earth into sacks. They hope that nestled somewhere amid the grit they will spot a glinting speck of gold.
Many miners are already frustrated, though, and say they have not found gold in months. Some sit at the mouths of the pits, smoking cigarettes while they wait for their friends to emerge from deep within. Lots of people have already drifted off to try their luck at other sites, says one young miner, after clambering out of a tunnel wearing a head torch.
At its height, the Luhihi gold rush also attracted a lot of enterprising businessmen who erected bars, brothels, clubs and gambling dens at the bottom of the valley. Miners still mill around, especially in the evenings, but the town is not the bustling place it once was.
In the evenings, women and girls working as prostitutes – some as young as 14 – linger on muddy street corners, waiting for customers. Faced with few alternatives in an impoverished region, ravaged by insecurity, they sell their bodies to put food on the table.
‘Sometimes they force you to have sex’
Deborah came to Luhihi when a friend told her that she might be able to find work in one of the makeshift restaurants or bars that had just sprung up. But after days of trawling the town and finding no jobs, she started to get desperate.
“I was staying with my friend, Claudine*, who was selling beer but also sleeping with men for money,” she says. “I used to ask her for things, like food, but she did not have much to share. At some point she said, ‘Look, you are a big girl, you can make your own money by finding men’.”
Claudine warned Deborah to use condoms when she slept with men to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Her first client, a man in his 20s, tried to have sex without one. She refused and he left, only to return the following night, this time agreeing to her conditions and offering her $10 for the night. It does not always happen this way.
“After they give you the money, they sometimes just force you to have sex with them without a condom,” Deborah says. “Or they refuse to pay if you ask them to use one.”
The morning after having unprotected sex, she takes two aspirins, believing this will reduce her risk of pregnancy.
Whole villages disrupted
In a country where 70 percent of the population survives on less than $2 a day, survival sex is widespread says Lorenza Trulli, a child protection officer for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
Matters are even worse in the conflict-racked eastern provinces where fighting exacerbates poverty.
While Luhihi is not overrun by rebels – largely because it is relatively close to the busy, provincial capital of Bukavu – militiamen roam the region and control other mines nearby.
“What is clear is that in conflict-affected areas the risks of violence and sexual exploitation against girls are…