FOURTEEN-YEAR-OLD JATU stood under a dull October sky on the stoop of her zinc-roofed, one-room concrete shack in New Kru Town, one of the poorest communities in Monrovia. Chubby teenage schoolgirls approached, in green tunics and with neatly braided hair, their black shoes clicking against the dusty, uneven road. Jatu’s tank top scooped across her breasts and heavily padded bra—what locals call an “iron-titty bra”—and her skin-tight leggings sat low across her buttocks, revealing her butt crack—her “junction,” as it is known in “colloqui,” or Liberian English. Jatu has fine cheekbones and brown eyes, framed by close-cropped hair—she wears it this way because she cannot afford to get it braided. As the girls passed, she turned away to hide the scars carved into the left side of her face, neck and shoulders, reminders of when she was mowed down by a taxi at the age of eight. The driver abandoned the car and fled, leaving Jatu for dead.
Since then, Jatu’s life has been shaped by a series of injustices that are quotidian for many girls in Liberia. This small West African nation, ravaged by civil war through the 1990s and early 2000s, is one of the poorest in the world—the European Commission estimates that over half the population lives in extreme poverty, on less than $0.50 a day. Born to a single mother with two other children, in a poor riverside community near New Kru Town called Crab Hole, Jatu told me she left home voluntarily at age eleven after sensing she was a burden on her family. Unable to pay tuition fees, she dropped out of school and moved in with an older friend, who soon took her to a club where they met a couple of “boys.” Together, they danced to pounding music, sipped beers, and then parted. Jatu’s friend said she would meet her at a nearby street junction, but disappeared. As Jatu walked out onto a dark road, she was met by two of the boys, who said they had paid her friend to “have” her. Before she could argue, they dragged her behind a car and raped her.
That was Jatu’s first taste of life on the street. Back then she was “forced,” but soon she started to “willingly” barter her body—“cut jopu,” as the locals say—on the road, in bars and in nightclubs, for goods or a little money, sometimes less than a dollar a session. For a time, she lived with nine other girls in a tiny room, kept by an older woman who took a cut of her earnings, and sent what money she could to her mother. Jatu now works independently, and pays “gronna boys”—street hustlers—for protection. She still sends money to her family.