Sex or Starvation:

In Lodwar, northern Kenya, Mary sits alone with her head in her hands. At 24, she is the sole breadwinner for an extended family. While she lives in the city, her younger siblings remain in the arid Turkana grasslands to the north. Their hunger has driven her to Lodwar, where she works in nightclubs, selling herself for sex for as little as 50 Kenyan shillings—roughly 50 cents.

In Turkana County, severe drought has left an estimated 2.6 million people on the brink of famine. Food prices have quadrupled, and UNICEF reports half of Turkana children are acutely malnourished. Now, many teenage girls face a desperate choice: sex work or starvation.

In a single night last winter, Lodwar caseworkers found 320 girls between the ages of 12 and 17 involved in transactional sex. Although vulnerable to abuse, diseases, and physical violence, none of the girls have yet returned home.

I travelled to Turkana in December 2017, to report on the plight of these girls and explore the connection between climate change and sexual violence. Working with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) I spent several days with the girls, building trust and learning about their lives as survival sex workers. I visited their homes in the city and the clinic where they find support, and also observed them working on the streets at night.

The setting and tone of this body of work is already clear to me. The completed photo essay will illuminate the lives of these girls, leading the viewer through the bars and streets of Lodwar, and into the homesteads where they care for their own babies. I will also travel to the girls' home villages, to photograph the environmental impact of localized climate change on this once-nomadic population. Concerns regarding the girls' privacy and safety will be consciously addressed, for example through considering shadow, shutter speed and natural objects to obscure identities. Production will take place over three to four weeks this summer, and funding will be used for travel expenses including air fare and lodging.

I have remained in contact with IRC caseworkers in Turkana and Nairobi, who are keen to have me continue my work. I have also connected with non-profits including Human Rights Watch and Save the Children, who are able to assist me on the ground.

I am very familiar with East Africa, having worked on assignment in Tanzania, Malawi and Swaziland over the past seven years, and I speak a modest amount of Swahili. I currently photograph regularly for clients including the San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian and Pacific Standard Magazine. Last year, my work was included in The Guardian's "Best Photographs of 2017".

With the support of the Dorothea Lange Fellowship, I intend to raise awareness of both the situation in Turkana and the wider phenomenon linking climate change to an increase in gender-based violence. By focusing on these girls I hope to reveal, directly and intimately, an unreported consequence of destroying our earth, and—in the legacy of Dorothea—to humanize those most at risk.

Rosa Furneaux
April 6, 2018