ASMARA, Eritrea — A couple of blocks from the main street in the Eritrean capital Asmara, a woman in jeans, T-shirt and red scarf tells a man her price for sex — less than $8.
"I am doing it to raise my child," the 19-year-old prostitute says.
Hunger and war form the backdrop to this furtive exchange, for deepening poverty is driving increasing numbers of Eritrean women to sell their bodies just to feed their families.
Residents say it's a particularly ugly development in a country founded on a fierce belief in self-reliance forged during a 30-year liberation struggle with Ethiopia.
The government of the tiny Red Sea state is trying hard to curb prostitution, not least because it could play a major role in the spread of HIV/AIDS, officials say.
But such efforts have yet to have any effect on the 19-year-old women and many other sex workers.
The woman, who like her colleagues declined to be identified, said she began selling sex when her 22-year-old boyfriend went into the military two years ago, during a 1998-2000 border conflict with Ethiopia.
Their child was born soon after he left, she says.
Her story is echoed by a colleague, a plump 30-year-old woman dressed in white robes who has two children. She says: "We were doing fine when we were living with my boyfriend, but when he went to the front we had nothing."
Poverty has many roots in Eritrea. Failed or late rains are only the most recent cause, and the United Nations says drought means that two-thirds of the almost 4 million population is at risk from food shortages.
Poverty was also entrenched by the country's 1998-2000 war with Ethiopia. About 70,000 people were killed in the conflict, which disrupted farming and devastated the economy.
An additional threat to wealth creation comes from growing HIV/AIDS infection, and strained relations with donors are yet another problem. European donors have frozen non-humanitarian aid amid concerns over government authoritarianism.
Street children, beggars
"Like everything else, prostitution is increasing because the country is in the condition that it's in," said Goytom Alem, a representative of the social welfare unit of the central zone office of the Labor and Human Welfare Ministry.
"There are more and more street children and beggars too. It's because of the conditions of the country's economy."
The only official study on prostitution, released in early 2000, said that though there was no reliable information, prostitution seemed to be a growing phenomenon.
"They (women) are forced to do such things," said Habtom Seum, director of the rehabilitation division at the Labor and Human Welfare ministry. "In order to change these things, the economy has to be improved."
A recent survey by the Health Ministry found that 22.8 percent of prostitutes were HIV-positive, well in excess of the 2.4 percent infection in the population at large, a report by the national AIDS control program of the ministry said.
Habtom said: "After independence, the economy was improving, but in 1998 the Ethiopians tried to retake Eritrea. Things went for the worse. Things collapsed."
The government does not give licenses to commercial sex workers or require them to be tested regularly, officials at the health and labor ministries said.
But it has at least sought to stem the vice.
In an effort to help social workers find and counsel prostitutes, government investigators in 1999 recorded the details of 4,579 commercial sex workers operating in bars, restaurants and hotels in 65 towns.
But the campaign's resources appear over-stretched.
Goytom said that in the country's central zone, where 1,246 sex workers were registered, just two social workers were assigned to deal with prostitution.
And the ministry has not registered details of any other prostitutes since it carried out the survey, he said.
Social workers have sent "safe sex" messages to prostitutes by way of community elders, urging them to use condoms and get check-ups at one of 25 hospitals and clinics where the tests are free and the results confidential, he said.
The ministry also has provided vocational training to several dozen prostitutes to try to get them off the streets.
But none of the women on the streets said they had had advice on safe sex or training.
"I have heard on the radio that they will give us jobs if we quit," said the 30-year-old woman. "But they haven't given us anything."
"Since the economy collapsed, the rent and everything have become so expensive, so I need 700 nakfas or 800 nakfas every month. If I can earn that, then I can quit this job."
Hearing about a vocational training program at the Labor Ministry compound — a 10-minute walk from where she stood — was no help to the 19-year-old.
"I can't work during the day because I have to take care of my child," she said. "For others (without children), it's easy."
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