10 December 2012

Zimbabwe: Let's Tackle GBV Outside the Home

TESHIA (not real name) is a 24-year-old sex worker operating on the streets of Harare whose repertoire of "clients" includes "respectable" married men, officials and police officers who demand sexual favours from her in exchange for avoiding arrest.

On bad days, she encounters violent clients who sometimes like to use sharp piercing objects such as knives on her.

Teshia is HIV positive, but despite her attempts to warn her clients about her condition, none of them care about using protection.

Miriro is a 15-year-old girl who has spent most of her life living on the streets.

When she lost both parents to HIV, none of her relatives were prepared to take care of her.

Living on the streets has been a three-edged sword for her. Miriro has no choice but to concede to sexual intercourse with boys also living on the street because they offer her food and protection.

During police raids and patrols, only the boys are chased away leaving the girls from whom they demand sexual favours.

Then there are the rich men with their big cars. They come periodically and take her to posh houses where she bathes and is offered food and money, after agreeing to sleep with them.

The above are real lives led by two young women in Zimbabwe. These two represent a part of society that operates at the intersections of poverty, HIV and gender-based violence.

They depict the horror story that many would rather not hear because it's considered taboo or immoral, yet it is happening. The links between HIV, poverty and gender-based violence have never been more profound.

Yet during this 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, how often do we spare a thought for women and girls suffering GBV in their line of work or existence -- making a living perhaps in ways, which we neither sympathise nor condone?

While the theme this year is "From peace in the home to peace in the community", do we recognise those among us who call the streets their home?

Do we think about what forms of GBV are also visited upon them because of their vulnerable and less than bearable reality?

At a gender and development talk organised by Zimbabwe Women's Resource Centre and Network in Harare recently, it emerged that sex workers and street children remain marginalised from critical programmes and interventions related to HIV and GBV, yet their activities directly or indirectly affect the larger society.

In particular, criminalisation of sex work has pushed women involved in it to the margins of society, yet their activities have a huge bearing on many households.

They have been left out of critical HIV prevention programming, despite the continuum existing between married men having unprotected sex with sex workers and then their wives.

Without holistic interventions, the majority of girls living on the street almost certainly end up engaging in sex work as a possible route out of poverty and the violence they experience daily.

Through the testimonies of sex workers, it emerged that majority of sex workers identify poverty, the need to pay household expenses and support their children as primary motivators for being drawn into the business.

Most of the sex workers have themselves previously been raped and or seriously assaulted, and they continue to experience physical assault at the hands of pimps and clients.

Client violence against sex workers on and off the streets is a reality. Even though there are reports of physical assault and sometimes murder among sex workers, such incidences are rarely reported to the police.

In Zimbabwe, where sex work is illegal and sex workers are stigmatised and discriminated against, sex workers do not report crimes to the police for fear of being arrested for soliciting sex.

Often the police themselves are involved in the abuse of sex workers. The country's political, social and legal systems disregard sex work as a legitimate profession and do not guarantee basic civil rights to sex workers.

As if this were not enough, sex workers presenting at some health facilities with sexually transmitted infections experience verbal abuse from health workers, sometimes to the point of leaving untreated and not seeking treatment in the future.

Speaking at the gender and development talk, Bulawayo East MP Ms Thabitha Khumalo highlighted the need for society to quickly get over the thought of sex work as something too immoral and taboo.

Sex work itself would not be possible without its key drivers or men who seek such services. According to Ms Khumalo, society is missing two key things where sex workers are concerned, that they form part of the electorate and that it will not be possible to get to the "zero infections" target without including them. Getting to zero HIV infection calls for political commitment and maturity, particularly in tackling the problematic socio-cultural factors fuelling the scourge.

With only two years left before the deadline of the 2015 global Aids targets, all stakeholders will need to renew commitments to attaining zero new HIV infections, by practising zero discrimination and focusing more concertedly on the key drivers, including sex work.

For all enquiries, please contact ZWRCN on email: zwrcn@zwrcn.org.zw/ website: www.zwrcn.org.zw/ call on +2634 700250/252388/ visit ZWRCN offices at 288 Herbert Chitepo Avenue cnr Seventh Street, Harare.

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