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Bertha, aged in her 40s, is matter-of-fact about the role she plays in the young girls' lives as she negotiates the prices customers will pay for sex with them and dispenses condoms and 'safe sex' advice. I introduce the girls to the customers. A Papua New Guinean sex worker meets with a client who has booked a room in the 'hotel' in Port Morseby where prostitution is still illegal. While the exact number of sex workers in PNG is not known, the United Nations has estimated that as many as two in three girls aged between 15 and 24 in Papua New Guinea have exchanged sex for money, food, shelter - or even payment school fees.
Despite those extraordinary statistics, the government is apparently in denial. Prostitution, brothels and homosexuality are all illegal in PNG, and women and men who choose to sell sex do so at their own risk and outside the health, security and other controls that regulate sex industries in other countries. They also face high levels of discrimination, stigma and hate crimes. It has left many of the countless numbers involved as paraiahs in their own society, vulnerable to abuse, violence and rampant diseases such as HIV infections.
It is late at night in Boroko, Port Moresby's once-thriving business district now fallen into disrepair, and Bertha points out working standing in the shadows around the area's clubs and bars.
Bertha, a bright energetic and seemingly kindly woman in her 40s, is matter-of-fact about her role, and equally comfortable negotiating prices for girls with customers as she is dispensing condoms and 'safe sex' advice to her young stable of teenagers.
A USAID survey on this sector of the PNG community revealed that although many hide their sex work from their families and the community, more than a third reported being shunned by their loved ones, and the same proportion were denied medical treatment when a nurse or doctor learned what they did for a living. The same survey showed almost 80 per cent of sex workers had been sexually abused in the previous year, 70 per cent had been raped in the few months leading up to the survey and about half had been raped multiple times in that period.