21 June 2017

Zimbabwe: Child Poverty and the Risks of HIV

Photo: Zimbabwe Standard
A woman was burnt for refusing to take 30c as payment for ‘short time sex’.

Our Children, Our Future It goes without saying that children are at higher risk of poverty and deprivation. Girls and boys experience all forms of poverty more acutely than adults because of their vulnerability due to age and dependency.

In addition, lost opportunities in childhood often cannot be regained later in life. The economic hardships being experienced by Zimbabweans have seen many breadwinners out of formal employment making it increasingly difficult for them to provide enough for their families.

In order to mitigate this, many families have resorted to using their children to assist in fending for the family. This has led to an alarming increase in young children that are working on the streets at times when you reasonably expect them to be in school.

Some are even vending in inappropriate places such as beerhalls, bottle stores and nightclubs. And for the girls, some are being pimped off for sex with all the dangers that such early sex presents!

With approximately 1,4 million people living with HIV in Zimbabwe the epidemic has threatened to become an endemic disease of poverty in the country. Poverty is a crucial factor in the spread of HIV/AIDS through transactional sex, sexual abuse and exploitation.

The economic hardships being experienced in the country exacerbate poverty levels hence people are rationalising strategies for survival. The extreme poverty levels compel young girls and older women to indulge in risky behaviour that can easily bring money and resources for survival.

For the child, the problem is damaging with life-long consequences that reinforce the vicious cycle of poverty.

While there are women who engage in commercial sex work on a regular basis, even more women, and especially young and vulnerable girls who are not commonly labelled as "commercial sex workers", find themselves needing to exchange sex for money or goods on an occasional basis.

A number of young girls have been forced to turn to sexual transactions in order to obtain desperately needed money in communities characterised by extreme poverty. It has become a trend that older rich men who were previously known as "sugar daddies" now known as "blessers" get into relationships with young girls and procure sex in exchange for gifts or money.

These "blesser-blessee" relationships have notoriously gained ground and are putting young women at risk. The implication of intergenerational sex is that it compromises safer sex as the girl cannot negotiate, hence the continuous spread of HIV among young women.

Despite the decrease in HIV prevalence to 14,7 percent, down from 26 percent 10 years ago in the country, ZDHS 2015 statistics have shown that more women are living with HIV with a prevalence rate of 17 percent as compared to men who are at 11 percent.

Many people can no longer afford the pursuit of an education and have to shift focus to earning a living in order to survive.

This results in increasing levels of school dropouts leading to deprivation in education. This lack of education also translates into desperation and vulnerability to risky behaviour and exposure to HIV and STIs.

Lack of access to pertinent information surrounding sex and HIV/AIDS results in the development of false narratives that fuel risky behaviours such as that safe sex is less enjoyable than engaging in unprotected sex.

Children who drop out of school due to poverty are often vulnerable to child marriages, the worst of it being polygamous that snowballs the transmission of HIV.

There is no simple solution to address the predicament of the linkages between child poverty and HIV/AIDS and of their mutual reinforcement. The fact that these two are so intimately connected means that progress in reducing child poverty levels will also reduce HIV trans- mission

There is a dire need to address child poverty, hence equitable economic growth is necessary for sustained poverty reduction. Reducing child poverty will lead to less appearances of children on the streets offering sex in return for survival, and a reduction in risky behaviour and transmission of HIV and AIDS!

The late Nobel laureate Gabrila Mistral once said: "We are guilty of many errors and many faults, but our worst crime is abandoning the children, neglecting the fountain of life. Many of the things we need can wait. The child cannot. Right now is the time her bones are being formed, her blood is being made, and her senses are being developed. To her we cannot answer 'Tomorrow,' her name is Today."

Carol Teguru works in the Social Policy & Research Section at UNICEF Zimbabwe

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