14 December 2012

Zimbabwe: Hunger Fuels Sex Work

NOTHANDO DUBE is among the latest dropouts of Hwange Government Secondary School.

At around 8pm she dry-washes her feet and wears her tights and mini-skirt and takes a dish full of mangoes to "sell" to truck drivers parked at the Truckers' Inn.

Whoever buys mangoes at night, only she and the truck drivers know. She is only 15 years old, but her make-up, dressing and language, make one easily mistake her for a mature and independent woman.

The way she sways her hips as she walks between the monster trucks convinces most of the truckers that it's not only the mangoes that she is selling.

Naturally, the truck drivers will be interested in taking her to bed for A "quick one" and less or never in her mangoes.

Nothando is not alone in this mango-selling game. Other girls as young as 13 compete with her for truck drivers, awaiting to load coal to many areas in the country from the mining town.

At times, competition is so tough that the less endowed girls stand by the roadside on the Bulawayo-Hwange-Victoria Falls Highway.

They are paid as little as US$3 but generally they charge US$5 per session of protected sex.

The amount goes up to a mere US$10 for unprotected sex.

"If you don't negotiate downwards, some one will get your client.

"What is bad is to be up the whole night and come back home empty-handed. You have to be smart and look very attractive.

"Selling mangoes is a mere cover because at times you come across police on patrol.

"There is also competition from elderly women who are more mature, skillful and have been in the business for much longer. But the men prefer the younger girls," Nothando said.

She added: "There are no jobs here in Hwange. You cannot even be a domestic worker. There is simply no job to talk about for us.

"There is no food at home except of these mangoes at this time of the year."

Intermittent droughts that have threatened thousands of people with starvation in Matabeleland North in the western part of Zimbabwe are compelling hordes of women and children into sex work in frantic attempts to bring food on their tables.

Severe shortages of food and diminishing income sources have sent prices of the staple maize meal skyrocketing.

Many women and girls are turning to sex work, putting themselves at risk of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases including the human papilloma virus that causes cervical cancer.

Nearly one in five rural people in the province of an estimated 1,6 million people need food assistance urgently according to the latest Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment (ZimVAC) report compiled by the World Food Programme.

The report also noted that the number of people in need of food assistance is 60 percent higher than the one million who needed food assistance during the last lean season.

WFP says there is a steep rise in food needs in drought-prone communities of the country that include Matabeleland North.

"Our field staff is already reporting signs of distress in rural areas, including empty granaries and farmers selling off their livestock to purchase grain," said WFP country director Felix Bamezon.

But as deadly as the food crisis might be, social workers in Matabeleland North said that extreme hunger may lead to an exponential jump in the province's already high HIV prevalence rate as women turn to sex work.

The National Aids Council put the HIV prevalence rate for Matabeleland North at 17,7 percent compared to the national prevalence rate of 14,2 percent.

Non-governmental organisations operating in the province said there had been a noticeable and worrying increase in the number of sex workers along the Bulawayo-Victoria Falls route and at business centres in Tsholotsho, Nkayi, Lupane, Binga and Hwange in recent months.

World Vision Zimbabwe said it has observed a dramatic increase in poverty-driven sex work as the drought continues in Matabeleland North noting that it was particularly visible along the main highway at Lupane Growth Point, Lukosi Business Centre, Cross Dete and Deka Mouth turn-off.

"More and more girls are standing at the roadside, many of them not even 13 years of age," said World Vision Zimbabwe.

A traditional leader in Hwange blamed deteriorating food security as the cause of the burgeoning sex work in the said communities.

"Because food reserves have run out and mothers can no longer afford to feed their children, many decide that the only way out is to join the sex work bandwagon," said the traditional leader.

Mr Oscar Mundida, Behaviour Change Manager with NAC, said such sex work constitutes the bulk of new HIV infections.

"Sex work contributes significantly on new infections.

"Hunger will now push the HIV statistics even higher," said Mr Mundida.

Good Hope Mothers, a Hwange-based social group, said the drought situation in the province will push more girls and women into sex work.

"The situation is actually very bad, especially in the rural areas, where the drought is most biting. I completely agree that the current drought has aggravated the situation. Child prostitution, in particular, is on the increase," said Mrs Stella Mpofu of Good Hope Mothers.

"Parents are unable to provide for their families, children cannot go to school because parents have lost their source of livelihood," she said.

"Now children have to contribute to the welfare of the family and the only way out is for the girl child to venture into sex work."

Fourteen-year-old Edith Ndlovu, who was roaming around Lupane Growth Point, said hunger was driven her and other girls into sex work.

"We did not harvest anything at home. The little maize that survived the drought was destroyed by wild animals.

"There is nothing to eat at home so I had no choice other than joining my elder sister who is also a sex worker here," said an almost sobbing Edith.

About 1,2 million Zimbabweans are estimated to be infected with HIV and 83 000 people are dying every year but social groups said the fear of the deadly disease was not deterring women from sex work as they are faced with equally dismal prospects of dying from hunger.

"This is something that should be addressed as much as it is not highlighted as compared to deaths caused by hunger, it is there, and it can be a source of very big problems in the society," said Mrs Mpofu.

Rutendo Mapfumo is a journalist based in Hwange.

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