The Herald (Harare)

10 April 2009

Zimbabwe: The Curse of Child Prostitution

Harare — THERE is a saying that politics is the second oldest profession in the world and it is just as sordid as the oldest.

Of course, this is not a very flattering thing to say about the practitioners of the profession called politics because the world has seen its fair share of principled, dedicated and people-centred politicians.

Despite the centrality of politics to global affairs from time immemorial, it certainly does say something about prostitution that some people find it as arguably a more interesting topic of discussion than governance, administration and the other bureaucratic humdrum associated with politics.

And as the oldest profession has spread across the globe, it has tended to rope into its ranks younger and younger practitioners, making it cause for concern for anyone who cares about children's rights.

In Zimbabwe, child prostitution has spread to various parts of the country like an uncontrollable veld fire, especially in border towns.

"My heart bleeds when I see young girls of primary school level engaging in prostitution. More hotels in the country have become notorious in entertaining these young girls that are seen loitering at their foyers and their premises as they search for clients," says Trevor Mutunami from Nyamapanda, a town bordering Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

It is common enough knowledge to most "buyers" to know how much they can "purchase" their so-called wares.

For example, "price tags" for a session with young girls are actually advertised openly in small towns like Nyamapanda, Beitbridge, Victoria Falls, Chirundu and other border posts in the country.

In recent years, it seems as if prostitution has become a lucrative business in these border outposts.

Most young girls are forced into prostitution when their parents die prematurely and they find themselves assuming the role of breadwinners virtually overnight.

A 15-year-old girl from Nyamapanda is one victim of this unfortunate predicament and she explained her experience as a prostitute at the Zimbabwe-Mozambique border.

"When my mother died of an Aids-related illness, I had few options to ensure that my younger sisters and brothers would go to school so I decided to go to Mozambique to get a job as a housemaid.

"I did not have a passport so I met an old friend from my primary school at the border who promised to help me get across the border without papers.

"A week after we arrived in Tete, my friend suddenly turned her back on me and told me that I was becoming a burden to her so the only way to get quick money was prostitution," she narrated.

Thulani's mother died from an Aids-related disease when she was 12 years old and she was left with her two brothers and sisters who needed to go to school.

She dropped out of school in Grade 7 and went looking for a job so that she would take care of her siblings.

Most of their relatives had labelled her mother a prostitute and they were not willing to lift a finger to help the children.

Officials from a local non-governmental organisation, Southern African Human Rights and Democracy Organisation, visited Thulani when she was just about to leave for Nyamapanda border post to look for more clients as her money from an earlier trip had run out.

"We identified Thulani through a neighbour and we managed to offer her counselling. Our organisation helped her with some money to cater for her siblings' fees and other general expenses and we renovated their homestead.

"The girl is a living testimony of one who has been saved before getting HIV-positive," said Mr Ian Machingura, the project manager of the organisation.

Most children who engage in prostitution fail to get proper counselling on the options available to them when they find themselves on the verge of destitution.

In many cases, relatives are to blame because they fail to take responsibility for orphaned children and this only worsens the problem as more and more kids get into prostitution, thereby fuelling a vicious cycle.

Child prostitution, however, is not only about little girls as young boys are also increasingly being targeted.

The International Organisation for Migration has identified this as a growing problem in Chiredzi where boys are leaving for South Africa where they get work as "comforters", mainly for widows.

The organisation has cited the main cause of this being economic instability.

IOM subsequently started a project where they donated goats in Machindu village in Chiredzi to families so that the children could have an alternative source of income.

NGOs have also found that child rape victims who do not access proper counselling and treatment are at great risk of turning to prostitution.

One Chiredzi girl aged 17 who was raped by an uncle -- who is still in jail -- is an example of a victim who has resorted to prostitution.

She seems not to understand the meaning of life and when The Herald interviewed her she said that she was not worried about her status because the rape incident had already "destroyed her life".

"Prostitution is a better option than staying at home where everyone knows that I was raped by my uncle and maybe he was HIV-positive.

"I would rather make a living out of prostitution than to be at home face-to-face with my aunt, who thinks I plotted to get her husband to sleep with me," she said.

Angels for Life Foundation, a local NGO, has initiated a campaign on awareness against child abuse and plans to set up communication and child abuse reporting centres at ward and district levels throughout the country.

What is evident is that the State's social services arms cannot adequately deal with this problem on their own and what is required is greater co-operation between Government and NGOs.

As things stand, the situation at border posts is appalling.

The problem is also widespread in major urban areas and more attention should be paid to empowering younger generations so that they do not seek recourse in prostitution.

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