The Herald (Harare)

27 February 2013

Zimbabwe: Street Kids Vulnerable to HIV

Photo: Jeffrey Moyo/ IPS
16-year-old boy sells sweets and popcorn to earn a living.

HARARE'S streets were bustling with people hurrying home after a hard work's day. The traffic jam made it impossible for motorist to move from point A to B. Every peak hour is now turning Harare into a traffic jungle. In fact, it is no longer an hour, but hours which can even start at mid-afternoon on busy days like Fridays.

One is left to wonder whether all motorists have passed the driving test as they all exhibit jungle driving.

It no longer matters if the traffic lights are working or not, lawlessness is becoming the order of the day.

How does a licensed driver justify blocking a road when he fully knows that he will not clear the hurdle before the traffic light changes? Such has become part of sunset driving in Harare. Street vendors are not to be outdone. They cover the little space that remains on the pavement with their wares as if they own the city.

The empty spaces left have since been taken over by the mall preachers who scream until their voices are hoarse proclaiming the "kingdom to come".

Their teachings are well choreographed to make the listener guilty and part with the last dollar in support of "God's Kingdom".

Street children are visibly tired by now and are grouped at traffic intersections planning the evening.

Although city is trendy and classy the latter's life is a far cry from the glitz and glamour of the city.

Surely, living in the city centre for the street children is no joke.

Two women, airtime vendors plying their trade along the First Street Mall and also living in the streets, seem engrossed in a serious discussion.

I am interested in them. I have watched them daily as I follow the stream of the traffic of flow heading west along Jason Moyo Avenue. I now have a tendency to listen to their conversation as their work always exposes them to Harare's drama. Like recorders they take all the details and are willing to give it out whenever there is someone paying them an ear.

One day I overheard their tit-a-tat as the man asked the woman for a good sleep's favour.

The woman refused pointing out that the last time she did, she was infected with an STI and with him being the only lover he was to blame.

"Oh no, I will never give that to you again. The last time I got a sexually transmitted disease and you flatly denied that you were the source.

"You even refused to help me raise the clinic fees so no, get the 'thigh' vendors and pay through the nose," said the woman.

The man begged and said that he would use condoms this time around and he was willing to pay for the service, too. These two make their "beds" by a bank pavement and as I later knocked off work around 10pm and was driving off from the same parking bay that is their night place, I was surprised to see that they had one cardboard bed instead of two that usually lie side by side. What transpired in the darkness is anyone's guess.

These are fully grown-up adults and any transaction is their business.

My heart today still bleeds for two teen-looking streets kids I always bump into every night. The two appear high on a substance and they kiss and fondle in full view of passers-by. I have on several occasions engaged them in talk and they appear to have lost hope. The girl said she ran away from an abusive step-mother in Domboshava three years ago and she has been "accommodated" by the boy who at first behaved like a brother but was now a lover.

"When I first came onto the streets I did not know anyone. It was tough but Toby took care of me.

"Like a brother he shielded me from the vagaries of the street. He used to give me food and saw that I was warm even in winter. I ended up staying close to him.

"He did not propose any love to me but it happened naturally and we ended up doing it," said the girl who said she is 14.

The boy usually does not answer back but nods to confirm the girl's story.

On this incident they appeared high and were in a world of their own.

They did not mind people who were still up on the street. In fact, passers-by rushing to catch the latest kombi saw the bedroom scenes free of charge.

So people turned their heads and passed as if they had not seen anything. I have seen the girl again and she said she was pleased to tell me that she was going to be a mother. She said she is still with Toby but at the rate vulnerable children are getting pregnant and the cycle of poverty continues is cause for concern.

That she is pregnant means not only is she exposed to STIs she is vulnerable and may end up getting HIV too. Programmes for street people seem to miss a piece in the jigsaw hence the puzzle is not completed.

Organisations working with street children must now up sex education among the children.

In fact, this calls for a national effort to increase awareness of the disease and promoting health sexual relations among them.

In the past a number young girls living in the streets were victims of abuse as old affluent but HIV positive men of the city quenched their sexual thirst on the unsuspecting children in return for food and few dollars.

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InFocus

Zimbabwe's Children in Crisis

16-year-old boy sells sweets and popcorn to earn a living.

Hard times have hit Zimbabweans and forced underprivileged children to earn a living as vendors in the capital, Harare. Read more »