BEIRUT, 6 March (IRIN) – At a glance, Nadine (not her real name) is an innocent, 16 year-old-girl, but a conversation with her soon reveals the shocking details of the hard life she endured as a child. "I didn’t choose to work as a prostitute," she said. "It’s just my luck in life." Explaining how she was raped at the age of nine by a neighbour, and therefore "had nothing to lose" when she accepted money for the first time in exchange for sex with an older man, Nadine blamed her situation on her family’s financial needs.

"My parents needed money so they sent me to work as a housemaid at the age of 12. Do you know how much I had to put up with in my situation?" Nadine asked rhetorically. "All men want is one thing

"I can’t go to the authorities and file a complaint. What would I say? ‘I slept with this man and he refused to pay me my money’?" said Nadine, refusing to say how much she usually charged customers.

Although not a widespread phenomena in Lebanese society, child prostitution does exist. But there are no official statistics on the numbers or nationalities of minors working, or forced to work, in the illicit industry. "There’s no way of telling the number of children working as prostitutes," said Rania Mansour, a social worker with Dar Al-Amal, a local NGO that helps sex workers.

"We work with a lot of sex workers, many of whom are minors," said Mansour. "But there are many obstacles, such as the lack of funds and prevailing social norms, which stand in the way of a solid study specifying the numbers." Even though Lebanon is considered one of the more liberal Arab countries, the sex trade – as in other countries in the region – remains a taboo subject.

According to Mansour, most prostitutes start at as young as nine years old, when they are most easily influenced. While most children in the trade here are Lebanese, there are also Palestinian, Syrian and Jordanian prostitutes, she said.

Reasons for working the trade

Most of the girls who visit Dar Al-Amal come from broken homes or very poor, underprivileged backgrounds. "Many girls we’ve helped have slept with men for very basic needs, like food or shelter – sometimes even a cigarette," she explained.

Zeina (not her real name), 21, said she was sold to a man for sex by her mother when she was just nine-years-old. She has since continued to sell herself.

"People are very judgmental, but at that age, if your own parents don’t want you, how are you supposed to survive? Tell me if there is any other way," she said.

Others, according to Mansour, confess to also doing it because they want to feel that someone cares about them, even if for a short while. "They’re minors, and at this age they need affection, which for them comes in a sexual form," Mansour said.

Psychological support is one of the most important services provided by Dar Al-Amal. "We notice that most of these girls lack self esteem and any sense of values, so we work with them on strengthening their personalities," the social worker said.

"It’s a hard job, since many of them have a problem trusting people."

The NGO, which carries out projects aimed at empowering women, dedicates a session in its day centre to the needs of women and girls in the sex trade. "We aim at supporting these women and girls, and offer them social, medical and psychological support in addition to legal support if they need it," Mansour explained. "A network of social workers, doctors and lawyers – mostly volunteers – is helping us with our work."

Dar Al-Amal is also devoted to raising awareness about the health risks such as HIV/AIDS inherent in working in the trade. "They’re in constant danger of being infected with sexually transmitted diseases. This is why we offer them sexual awareness classes," Mansour said. "But there’s always the threat of men forcing them to have unprotected sex."

Vocational training is also provided in hopes of steering sex workers into different careers. "We think this is the only way they can stop," said Mansour.

Funding problems

Although the NGO offers a drop-in centre for girls, it hopes to expand services further, said Dar Al-Amal Director Hoda Qarra. "The service we offer right now isn’t enough to help girls get off the streets," she said. "At the end of the day, we can’t offer them shelter, and these girls find themselves back on the streets."

While there are plans to build a permanent centre to host them, Mansour says that, without sufficient funds, such planning is futile. According to Qarra, the NGO, which depends on donations for about 80 percent of its budget, was supposed to get 20 percent of its funding from the state. "We still haven’t gotten all our money for the year 2005," she said.

Elie Mikhael, head of the Lebanese Higher Council for Childhood (HCC), blamed the shortfall on the country’s struggling economy. "Everyone knows the economic crisis Lebanon is passing through, and this affects everything, including social help," he explained.

According to Mikhael, progress is steadily being made, albeit slowly. "We’ve been on the right track when it comes to protecting children from sexual abuse and preventing child prostitution," he said.

The HCC, established in 1994, works under the patronage of the Ministry of Social Affairs and serves as a national framework for cooperation on social issues between NGOs and the public sector.

Government steps to protect children

In June 2002, Law 422 was passed, allowing children subject to sexual abuse or physical violence to raise lawsuits against offenders.

"This was very important legislation because it gives the child the means to protect him or herself through resorting directly to the legal authorities," said Mikhael.

In the same year, Lebanon ratified an optional protocol as part of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography.

"We have to keep in mind that minors are often pushed into prostitution following some sort of sexual abuse practiced on them, a subject considered taboo in our societies," Mikhael said. "But the ratification of the optional protocol was a confident first step aimed at breaking the silence."

Meanwhile, for girls like Nadine, the worst part of the job is the stigma attached to the trade, as well as the constant fear of her parents finding out what she does.

"I know my neighbours are talking about me behind my back, and I’m ashamed when my family hears rumours about me," she said. "But I keep assuring them that it’s not true, and they turn a blind eye because they need the money."