High unemployment and the increasing cost of living are fuelling a rise in sex work in Zimbabwe.
It is now the most mentioned source of income in Harare, according to a survey by the Zimbabwe Civil Liberties and Drug Network, in partnership with the National Aids Council (NAC) and the ministry of health and childcare.
The survey was conducted in Harare, Bulawayo, Mashonaland West, Manicaland and Mashonaland Central.
“In Harare the most often-mentioned source of income was sex work. Sex work was the third-most often-mentioned source of income in Mashonaland Central and the fourth in Mashonaland West. Bulawayo and Mashonaland Central had the highest number of participants reporting not to be earning any money,” the report, released late last month, said.
“Participants engaging in transactional sex in the past six months had suffered from some form of sexual violence, being forced into having either penetrative sex or oral sex. About a third of those engaging in transactional sex have had anal sex,” it added.
Sex work is a criminal offence, leaving the country’s estimated 45,000 sex workers unprotected by the law and exposed to danger.
In Harare’s Avenues area, a well-known red-light district, women flooded the streets looking for clients this week.
Nelly, 34, who asked that her surname not be revealed, said: “I entered sex work when l was 22.
“Abject poverty and lack of opportunities forced me into this profession. Homeless, without any money and nothing to eat, a friend took me in and introduced me to sex work.
“It’s hard. I am stigmatised by family and society. I am also subjected to harassment by the police. I charge US$10 for 30 minutes or US$20 for a full hour. In one night I sleep with at least five men.
“In most cases I encounter sexual violence. I have been raped and stabbed, and my body is full of bruises from physical violence. I also got pregnant and now I have a child to look after.
“Because I have a child to feed and bills to pay, it has become difficult to leave the industry, but at the same time l did not feel safe doing sex work.”
According to UNAids, Zimbabwean sex workers “face violence from the police, clients and partners, increasing their risk of acquiring HIV.
“Prevalence of HIV among sex workers in the country is high, estimated at 42.2%. Sex workers also face stigma and discrimination from healthcare workers.”
Monalisa, 22, dropped out of school when she became pregnant. Sex work was a means of survival to feed her children.
“The first time I started sex work, I traded sex for food to feed my two children. As time progresses you realise transactional sex is not only about money, it’s also about food.
“With the cost of living soaring and high prices, often I sleep with men for food – just a few groceries like sugar, cooking oil, mealie meal and some meat. The money in sex work is just too little. Charging US$10 for sex is not enough to put food on the table.
“And the industry is very dangerous. Some clients want to take drugs while with me and often male clients refuse to use condoms because they say it reduces their pleasure. Even though I charge more – US$40 – for unprotected sex it’s still a risk,” she said.
Hazel Zemura, director of All Women Advocacy, a grassroots organisation led by sex workers and with more than 3,000 members aged between 18 and 53, said the country’s financial hardships meant “a lot of women have been forced into transactional sex”.
“There is also an increase in the number of women forced to turn to what is known as survival sex work, undertaken to meet immediate needs such as financial, accommodation or food,” she said.
“We are campaigning for the decriminalisation of sex work. It is illegal to solicit clients, live on the earnings of sex work and facilitate and procure sex work. All this makes sex workers vulnerable to violence and victimisation, and reluctant to report this to the police for fear of criminalisation.”
Poverty and an inability to afford tuition, accommodation and food have also forced many university students into the industry.
Tatenda, 23, a second-year student, said transactional sex paid her bills.
“I live off campus, renting a room with two other girls. We need to buy food, pay the rent and have transport money.
“My parents are struggling. They manage to pay for tuition fees and send a little extra for food, but it’s not enough.
“So I engage in transactional sex with older men to pay my rent and buy food. Other students are doing it as well, because if you don’t, you will starve,” she said.