Chiadzwa — The loss of land and a gender hierarchy, among other factors, are forcing some young girls - with parental consent - to forsake school and turn to sex work on diamond mines in the Marange region of eastern Zimbabwe.
"Commercial sex among girls as young as 12 years has become a natural way out of poverty for these children and their families. They are using it as a coping mechanism in the wake of the negative effects on household livelihoods caused by mining activities in Marange," Melanie Chiponda, programme manager of the Chiadzwa Community Development Trust (CCDT), an NGO, told IRIN.
Nationally, about 2.2 million people are faced by food insecurity, but food shortages and rising levels of poverty in communities in Manicaland province's diamond fields are being attributed to the "resource curse".
In 2008, artisanal miners were flushed from the Marange diamond fields by government security forces, and the state then issued commercial mining licences.
Seven companies now mine the 60,000 hectare fields, but proximity to wealth has undermined rather than improved livelihoods.
"The mines took away pastures and farmland from the locals... This worsened hunger and affected household income, as families traditionally sold some of their crops and livestock to raise money for food, school fees and other basic needs," Chiponda said.
Local communities have also been excluded from low-skilled jobs on the mines because companies have branded them as lazy and disobedient, and rely on migrant workers from other provinces instead.
"Thousands of married men live in [single-sex] hostels at the mines and women are not allowed inside them. Given that most of the men come from faraway places, they end up resorting to commercial sex and, unfortunately, girls become part of the dirty game. Some of the girls get food handouts as payment for sex," Stella Washaya, 50, a Marange villager and volunteer counsellor for vulnerable young girls, told IRIN.
Mine companies have now banned villagers from selling their produce, but between 2006 and 2008, artisanal miners stimulated the local economy by buying foodstuffs from the community.
The companies also have a policy of confiscating livestock roaming onto their concessions, and mining activities have destroyed forests. In times of food insecurity, livestock are seen as a last resort, and wild fruits from the forests are eaten or sold along highways.
Freeman Bhoso, executive director of the Zimbabwe Natural Resources Dialogue Forum (ZNRDF), an NGO advocating sustainable and equitable exploitation of mineral resources, told IRIN that child sex work was a "natural offshoot" of the community's exclusion from the diamond fields.
"Communities are not benefiting from the exploitation of resources, but are getting further impoverished. As a result, household members are forced to engage in activities - some of them life-threatening - that guarantee them bare survival. Child commercial sex is a symptom of poverty," he said.
Washaya said, "Commercial sex among young girls has become a social crisis here. There are several thousands homesteads in Marange and I would say one in every five of these has at least one [girl] teenager engaging in sex for money."
A nurse at one of the few health centres in the area, who declined to be identified, told IRIN: "We attend to at least 20 girls a month who have contracted STIs [sexually transmitted infections]. The men... insist on unprotected sex, a trend worsened by the fact that there are no programmes designed to educate them against the risky practice. Many young girls have dropped out of school due to unwanted pregnancies."
In Marange, the prevalence of Apostolic religious communities advocating a boy's education ahead of a girl's, has seen some parents encouraging their daughters to enter the commercial sex trade to support the family, Washaya said.
Mary Sithole*, 15, the mother of a two-month-old baby, told IRIN her child was born with deformed legs during a home birth, as her Apostolic church prohibits members from going to hospital. She claims a Chinese mine manager at Anjin - a diamond mining company - is the father, but he has denied both responsibility and child support.
Mary dropped out of school after completing primary school education. "My father decided to go to Botswana after the mine [Anjin] took away our land and left us with a small field to grow crops. Mother followed him, and even though they visit whenever they can, they send us little money but I have to take care of my brother and sister."
She became the head of a family that includes two younger siblings, as well as her newborn. Still breast-feeding, she nonetheless visits the mine hostels and local bars at night, but strong competition means she charges clients as little as US$2 a night.
"Now that I have a child, the burden has grown and sex with men is the easiest way to get some money. Many girls are doing this and have forgotten about school," Mary said.
Chiponda said the Chiadzwa development trust is embarking on an audit to determine the number of child commercial sex workers who fail to attend school because of poverty-related issues.
Zimbabwe recently widened its multi-currency basket to nine officially acceptable currencies, adding the Chinese yuan, Japanese yen, Indian rupee, and Australian dollar to the already accepted US dollar, South African rand, Botswana pula, British pound and the euro - a move widely seen as an attempt to alleviate cash shortages.
Fears of deflation, which would further strain a fragile economy with an estimated 80 percent unemployment rate, have led Zimbabwe's former finance minister, Tendai Biti, to call for an urgent off-shore $4 billion stimulus package.
The government is battling to pay the education costs of nearly a million orphans and vulnerable children through the Basic Education Assistance Module (BEAM), a cash transfer programme that pays tuition, and levy and examination fees for children that cannot afford them.
The acting principal director in the social services ministry, Sydney Mhishi, told parliament in January 2014 that the government had allocated $15 million in the budget presented in December 2013, saying the amount would only benefit 83,000 out of a targeted 250,000 secondary school children under BEAM.
He said $28 million was required for 750,000 primary school children, and the government had yet to receive funding pledges from donors for 2014.
The social welfare ministry's secretary, Ngoni Masoka, recently wrote to schools for children with disabilities, which have also benefited from BEAM, announcing that the government had stopped funding.
The UK Department for International Development (DfID) has confirmed that it received a formal request for funding from Zimbabwe on 13 January, a day before the schools opened, and was considering it.
DfID helped around 660,000 orphans and vulnerable children attend primary school in 2012 and 2013. The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) Zimbabwe managed the BEAM fund until 2011, when that role was taken over by Crown Agents, a UK-based body, and now provides advisory support.
The opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) shadow minister for social welfare, Concilia Chinanzvavana, in January called for the "unconditional enrolment of all disadvantaged students and pupils in the schools this year ".
In Chitungwiza, a dormitory town about 30km south of the capital, Harare, a secondary school principal who declined to be identified, said, "About a fifth of the 1,000 plus students enrolled here are on BEAM. While government has directed that we should not send [away] those who have not paid their fees... we need money to cover costs. Some parents who can, are not paying... because they are aware of the government directive. That tends to compromise educational standards."
Raymond Majongwe, secretary general of the Progressive Teachers' Union (PTUZ), told IRIN the delay in disbursing funds for poor children "called for extraordinary measures on the part of government and other stakeholders", so that the vulnerable students could remain in school.
"We are considering several fundraising strategies... [which] will at least help some of the disadvantaged children," he said. "We are also talking to sister unions in other countries to see how best they can help, and will be approaching international donors."
*Not her real name
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]