Cameroon: Hortense, the former ‘fille libre’ turned peer educator

Published: 28 November 2007 0:00 CET

Jean-Luc Martinage, International Federation

Dressed in her Cameroon Red Cross peer educator T-shirt, Hortense is an elegant 30-year-old woman. She attracts everyone’s attention at the start of the evening’s activities in the small room at ‘La confiance’, a modest health centre in Emombo district, not far from the centre of the Cameroonian capital, Yaoundé.

Together with her friend Pauline, Hortense has brought together some ‘filles libres’ from the neighbourhood – as young female sex workers are known in Cameroon. Hortense tells them, amongst other things, about the importance of ensuring their clients wear a condom in order to avoid being infected with HIV and then passing the virus on to others. She also talks to them about sexually transmitted diseases, and answers what are often very specific and explicit questions from the women who have come to listen to this educational talk.

Hortense knows better than anyone the motivation and worries of the women in the audience. Just a few years ago she too was a ‘fille libre’ and worked as a sex worker in the ‘secteur’, the name given to the area of the Cameroonian capital where many women sell their bodies at night.

“I fell into prostitution at the age of 25,” she tells us. “I suddenly found myself having to provide financially for my mother and so I began walking the streets like many other women, who are often forced to sell their bodies in order to survive and support their families,” she adds.

However, Hortense quickly decided to escape the world of sex work and the violence that goes with it. “There were some very dangerous times,” she admits, remembering in particular the difficulty in resisting the demands of some of her clients who did not want to use a condom. “Sometimes, physical strength won,” she says, looking away.

One day, Hortense learned about the ‘club des amis de la prudence’, a small association which, supported by the Cameroon Red Cross where its headquarters are housed, is leading a sensitization campaign and trying to help those girls who want to leave sex work.

Today, Hortense has become one of the association’s most active members. As well as the sensitization campaigns in which she takes part, she is also involved in a small theatre group which acts out scenes from everyday life which show how potential pimps and clients try to approach girls in financial difficulty in order to persuade them to become sex workers.

Hortense has now given up sex work for good. This move was made possible mainly thanks to a micro-project offered as part of the Cameroon Red Cross Society’s Filles Libres programme, which also receives the support of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Hortense began by selling yoghurts before moving on to sell mobile phone services, which provides her with financial independence. However, Hortense still thinks of those women who continue to sell their bodies.

“We, the former ‘filles libres’ turned peer educators, are virtually the only people able to talk to the young women who prostitute themselves in the ‘secteur’,” she explains. “They know we endured the same hardships as them, that we are not judging them and that we want, above all, to help them protect their health,” she adds. A view shared by Dominique, an attractive 22-year-old woman, who is also a ‘fille libre’ and who took part in the educational talk at the Emombo health centre. “Hortense and her friends have led the same kind of life as us. They’ve got the experience that we don’t have. It’s good to listen to their advice,” she tells us. The aim of these talks is first and foremost to protect the health of the girls and their clients, and not necessarily to persuade them to change profession.

This collaboration with local associations, including those of people living with HIV, is one of the main features of the Filles Libres programme. It also provides psychological support for women who are often subjected to violence, and who face rejection by their family and friends if they were to find out about their night-time activities.

“Initially launched in the country’s two main cities, Yaoundé and Doula, this programme targets one of the most vulnerable HIV groups, and will now be rolled out in other parts of the country,” explains William Etteki Mboumoua, President of the Cameroon Red Cross Society. “We’ve just begun in the Bertoua ‘secteur’, and other regions will follow if we secure the necessary funding,” he continues. So far, 2,000 ‘filles libres’ have already benefited from the project.

The Cameroon Red Cross programme sits within the framework of the International Federation’s global HIV policy, which stresses the need to involve local communities and encourages them to lead the way with the support of volunteers from affected neighbourhoods. Special attention is given to the most vulnerable groups, particularly orphans and girls. During the last three years in Cameroon, 5,300 information sessions on prevention have been organized at over 100 different venues, notably in bars and nightclubs.