Zimbabwe: Stigma Haunts Male Sex Workers

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There is a growing number of male sex workers (MSW's) in Zimbabwe, but most of them are operating underground for fear of backlash from a society which is highly conservative.

While many people have made peace with female sex workers who are now recognised even in health programming, their male counterparts are still unknown, but they nonetheless exist.

The director of the Zimbabwe Rainbow Community (ZRC), Lawrence Phiri, said there are many male sex workers in Zimbabwe.

The organisation envisions a Zimbabwean society that treats male sex workers equally and empowers the MSWs to live to their full potential.

"There are so many male sex workers in Zimbabwe, but most of them do not want to be called sex workers. They prefer to be referred to as dancers, Ben Ten or stress relievers depending on individuals," Phiri said.

He said their failure to come out in the open is because they often face a lot of stigma and intolerance from the community and their female sex worker counterparts.

"Most male sex workers do not really tell people what they do. The community has not yet embraced male sex workers. The stigma they face from female sex workers on its own is traumatising, what more someone who is not in the industry," said Phiri.

Describing the MSW, Phiri said: "Male sex workers are men who receive money or goods in exchange for sexual services, and who consciously define those activities as income-generating and even identify sex work as their occupation."

Of concern, however, is the amount of violence that they also encounter in the line of work.

"Most male sex workers face violence and blackmail from the mainstream society and their clients. Most of the dangers they face are not reported or documented," Phiri said.

"There is a barrier between them and law enforcement agencies. One can never walk into a police station and report violations. The police themselves will start judging you because of the work you do."

Phiri also revealed that the MSWs also report cases of rape.

"Yes, male sex workers do get raped too, but how do you explain that to someone who's not sensitised around marginalised groups?" he said.

MSWs according to Phiri also face a lot of violence particularly from the police, the partners (gender-based violence) and clients.

"ZRC is also planning to train four paralegals who will help the community in case they face violence. The paralegals help anyone in danger, document incidences of violence and follow up on matters reported to the police," he said.

In terms of accessing health services, however, ZRC says they have managed to sensitise nurses in most local clinics and MSWs can now access services.

"ZRC also offers friendly health services, condoms, lubricants, PrEP (Pre-exposure prophylaxis), post-exposure prophylaxis , ART, TB and STI screening and treatment.

Commenting on progress made so far, Phiri said they had had made some headway despite the many challenges.

"It is better from where we came from. We are hoping that by the end of 2019 they will be able to access services without stigma," he said.

ZRC was established in 2014 as a community-based organisation which hopes to fulfil its vision through activism, service provision, advocacy, and community development and empowerment.

It also provides various forms of support to meet the needs of the sex-and-gender-diverse community of Zimbabwe increase awareness, and advocating for the rights of male sex workers in Zimbabwe.

Phiri said to achieve these objectives, the organisation was focusing on activism and sensitisation programmes in the health sector around the needs of male sex workers leadership and entrepreneurial skills.

It was also looking at grassroots-level research on the needs of the male sex worker communities; sharing the narratives of male sex workers, HIV-related services for male sex workers and fostering relationships between the various MSW communities and organisations in Zimbabwe.

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