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My Drive to Save African Sex Workers

BS Top - Gbowee Congo A sex worker waits in a corridor in a center run by Doctors Without Borders in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo. (Lionel Healing, AFP / Getty Images) On a trip to Congo, peace activist and Daily Beast Africa columnist Leymah Gbowee witnesses the violent arrest of a refugee girl forced into a bleak life as a sex worker. Inside her rage and helplessness.

In the past two weeks I have cried angry tears on more than occasion. Each time, it has been because of the tragic fate facing a young African girl.

On April 24, I attended the funeral of a young Liberian refugee who had died of AIDS-related causes. I met this very promising young woman in September 2002 at the West African Peacebuilding Institute, when I was leading a women’s movement for peace in my home country, Liberia. A friendship blossomed and she joined our Mass Action Campaign. In 2003, she was the youngest member of the sit-ins for peace held in Accra, Ghana. At the time she told me she wanted to be a journalist.

The men pulled the girl out of the hotel room clothed only in panties, kicking and punching her for resisting. I ran to follow and she reached out to me, pleading for help.

A month ago, I got a message from a friend that this young girl had suffered a stroke, was diagnosed HIV-positive, and had a brain infection. She died on Easter Sunday.

At her funeral, I cried for a life that had been wasted and wondered how many more young Africans with fine prospects are losing theirs lives based on limited choices—a direct result of their economic status.

Take Action: To help build the African sexual rights movement, support Akina Mama wa Afrika, whose goal is to empower sex workers to stay healthy and improve their lives. Learn more through AMwA’s partners, HIVOS and the Open Society Institute. I was once a young refugee myself, and I endured the constant harassment of men who imagined that every refugee girl was ready to have sex for some form of cash. At the funeral of this young woman, there were many other refugee girls who came skimpily dressed. I kept asking myself, ‘How can we help them, how can we reach them, how can we as African women ensure that they don’t all die because some man neglected to protect them?’ ”

These questions continued to haunt me as I traveled to Congo to do some work with Congolese women, who live in a nation plagued by war and mass rape. On the fourth day of the trip, I was sitting in my hotel room chatting online when I heard a scream: “Somebody help me!”

Article - Gbowee Sex Workers Nicolette Bopunza, age 14, stands outside her house in Mbandaka, Congo. She works as a sex worker, charging about 50 cents for sex and $2 for a whole night. (Per-Anders Pettersson, File Photo / Getty images) The activist, mother, and feminist in me ran outside in only a piece of wrap and a shirt, to see a young Congolese girl on the balcony of a hotel room crying. She was shouting in not so perfect English, “This is all you wanted, sex me and throw me out! You are a bad person! I don’t ever want to see you again!” I continued to stand and watch. She said to me, “Mama help me, after being bad to me, now he is calling the police.” In less than five minutes, about four police officers and several men in plain clothes came running to the scene. The girl was pulled off the balcony and back into the room, as she screamed for help and asked, “What is my crime?”

The men then pulled her out of the hotel room clothed only in panties, kicking and punching her for resisting. I ran to follow and she reached out to me, pleading for help. I asked the guy who was apparently the commander of the whole operation to release her to me, but he said no, that she was a constant problem for the hotel. More men continued to pound and kick this girl.

As three police officers and two plainclothes men dragged her away, she tilted her head in my direction and said, “Mama, help me!” They had handcuffed her, and she was obviously headed for a police cell. What became of her in the cell that night, only God can tell.

All I could do was join her in screaming. My scream was for my own helpless state at the moment, for her pain, and for the many young African girls living in situations of conflict, who are constantly being exploited. My scream and angry tears were for the psychopaths we call leaders in Africa, who give us nothing but pain and misery. My scream was for the misery of so many African women who live at the mercy of men and boys.

My scream blended with the screams of my Congolese sisters. The rage subsided after 15 minutes and all that was left was a feeling of helplessness for every African refugee girl. I believe even as they walk the streets offering sex, they are looking at us African women, the seemingly strong ones, and screaming silently like the Congolese girl I saw: “Mama, help me!”

Take Action: To help build the African sexual rights movement, support Akina Mama wa Afrika, whose goal is to empower sex workers to stay healthy and improve their lives. Learn more through AMwA’s partners, HIVOS and the Open Society Institute.

May 29, 2010 Posted by | Sexuality | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Laws of Attraction Are Mysterious and Uncontrollable

Some crushes are inappropriate but excusable. For example, you may find yourself doing a double take when someone from the sales department walks past. He may be cute but it’s not a good idea to admit you have a thing for him, because you work with him. And because he’s a salesman.

Still, at least he’s hot. What happens when you find yourself going weak in the head for somebody who really is not in the slightest bit nice to look at?

Funny Guys

It’s vaguely understandable when the object of your crush is attractive in other ways – for example, he could be funny. Take American talk-show host Conan O’Brien. (I would.) He looks a bit like Tilda Swinton, only more unsettling. He has ginger hair. He has no discernible eyebrows. He’s about nine feet tall and can’t weigh more than 65kg. But every time he gives the double thumbs up, grins into the camera and says ‘Buddy boy,’ I want to jump his bones. Funny is so sexy that it can make up for there being no actual sexy present at all.

That’s why I’d happily do Michael Cera or Seth Rogen. Or Steve Carell or Vince Vaughn, spare tyre and all – though – if you needed glasses but didn’t have them on, you could justifiably think those two fairly good-looking.

Right, so we can like men because they make us laugh, but that doesn’t explain it all the way. It’s not as though the world is short of sexy men who are also funny. Remember Brad Pitt in Snatch? Hysterical. Jimmy Fallen is adorable and one of the funniest men on screen. But, given the choice, I think I’d rather sleep with Jack Black. I think it’s the chubby cheeks.


One step away from the funny-looking funny guy is the funny-looking clever guy. Cathy, is into Barack Obama. Who isn’t? But if you take away the power and the stage lights, what you’re left with is a sexy voice stuck in a stick figure with big feet and crazy ears.

Still, Obama is an extremely glamorous nerd, and he does have that smile, the one that could probably charm even Julius Malema into submission. Obama is also cool. Cool goes a long way. That’s how men such as Billy Bob Thornton and Slash – get my sexiness vote.

My own nerd crush is not cool. If I ever saw Jarvis Cocker walking in the street, I would immediately delete all the Blur songs off my iPod and run over to accost him. I might break a bone, but I’d do it anyway. I don’t know why. I can’t explain it.

Crusty Old Men

Which takes us another step further, into the category of just plain inexplicable. These are the really inappropriate crushes, because they seem not to have any redeeming features at all. Or, if they do, they are not enough to cancel out all the scary features. And yet these men are sexy. I’m not the only one who thinks so – just look online.

Did you sense that I was procrastinating a bit in the last paragraph? I was, because I keep cringing at the thought of typing what I need to type next. Okay, I’ll be brave. Here goes: Gordon Brown. I would totally do Gordon Brown. I expect it would take years of therapy to discover why.

Some people believe power can make a man sexier. In some ways they’re right. It might be because charismatic people are often the ones who end up holding power, and charisma is sexy. Someone I know once met red-faced, puffy-nosed Bill Clinton – just after the Monica Lewinsky thing – and described him as ‘sex on wheels’.

But the thing is, Gordon Brown doesn’t even really have power on his side. He’s one of the least popular prime ministers in British history. He’s not funny; he looks like he doesn’t brush his teeth; he has a freakier smile than Dracula.

At least Jeremy Clarkson, my number-one ‘older’ crush, is less embarrassing than Mr. Brown. He’s crusty and flabby, and his habit of wearing jeans that sag around the bum has been blamed by some for the decline in denim sales during the ’90s.

But he’s also opinionated and clever and funny. And politically incorrect and often inappropriate. Like my crush on him.

May 17, 2010 Posted by | Off Topig, Sexuality | , , , , , | Leave a comment