‘We engage in sex work to escape poverty’

By Nyasha Dube

Mandava is a township located in Zvishavane in the Midlands province. It is one of the oldest high residential areas in the mining town.

It is overpopulated given the presence of a market and a bus terminus.

The market is always a hive of activity day and night, as people go on with their different trades.

The poor standards of living cannot go unnoticed, but what is more popular is a type of trade that goes on at night, sex work.

For women in Mandava, sex work is not a trade they enjoy but are forced into it by poverty.

This old profession does not only expose them to HIV/AIDS, but also to violence and stigma perpetrated by their clients, the society and above all the lawmakers and law enforcers who are supposed to protect them.

Despite the 2017 landmark court ruling which stopped the arrest of women for allegedly soliciting for purposes of prostitution, things have not been rosy for ladies of the night.

On 15 May 2017, the Constitutional Court of Zimbabwe released 9 Harare women who were arrested for soliciting. The case was dropped because there was no evidence as the men involved did not appear in court.

The ruling did not legalise sex work but sought to rectify gender discrimination in police operations.

While the ruling was celebrated by women rights activists and organisations that advocate for sex workers, they continue to endure police harassment and abuse.

Susan* is a 26-year-old and who grew up in Zvishavane. She started sex work at the age of 21 to raise money for her own business but later realised that sex work is a lucrative business.

“I had ended my marriage because my husband was unfaithful. I could not just wait for him to infect me. At that time, I wanted to be independent and provide for my own needs. I later discovered that sex work is a better alternative,” said Susan.

Susan’s situation is not a rare one as most people are out of jobs due to economic hardships currently prevailing in Zimbabwe. Many women have opted for selling their bodies to take care of themselves and their children.

Abigail* (33) is a mother of two. She says she started sex work because her husband was failing to take care of her.

“My husband did not want to work, and I had to provide for the family on my own. I tried to find a job with no luck. I ended up resorting to sex work,” says Abigail.

Susan and Abigail have managed to stay in the profession for years and it may have proven to be a reliable source of income, but they endure violent encounters in their trade not only from their clients but the police as well

“At times we go to the police with our cases of rape or theft, but they chase us away and tell us they don’t handle sex work issues,” they both said.

Besides ill-treatment from police, they also face stigma from the court officials and lawyers who are supposed to represent them.

Zvishavane based lawyer and member of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR)  Herbert Tafa says they rarely represent sex workers.

“Sex work has long been regarded as highly immoral. The last time I handled such a case was a couple of years back. Some of my colleagues even shun away from such cases,” says Tafa.

A report from Handoff, an organisation that aims to reduce violence against sex workers, shows that sex workers are vulnerable to abuse from stakeholders that are expected to assist them.

According to the report, they face abuse from the police, clients, health workers and the community.

It further shows that 61% of sex workers experience abuse from police in the form of beatings, forced sex and having their earnings stolen.

The police, however, say they do not discriminate sex workers but they help everyone as long as there is substantial evidence to open a case.

Sergeant Nyamayaro from the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) Zvishavane Victim Friendly Unit says they treat sex workers just like any other victims.

“If one is a sex worker it does not mean that they do not have rights. What happens is that most of them are not interested in the procedures undertaken when opening a case and some of them fail to present solid evidence,” said Nyamayaro.

When asked on the legality of sex work, Lawyer Tafa said it is illegal.

“The Constitution of Zimbabwe is clear, soliciting for purposes of sex is illegal.”

While sex work may be illegal, Sections 49(1)(b) and 56(1) provide that everyone has the right to personal liberty and all persons have the right to equal opportunities, sex workers included.

The trade also continues to thrive because of the country’s economic situation.

The lack of clarity on the regulation of sex work in Zimbabwe poses problems not only for law enforcers but for organisations like the National Aids Council (NAC) and Center for Sexual Health HIV and AIDS Research (CESHHAR) which deal with HIV/AIDS interventions.

NAC and CESHHAR have also been rolling out programs targeting girls and women to take part in economic strengthening trainings as a way of persuading them to abolish sex work.

Despite these interventions, sex workers remain exposed to all forms of human rights violations which increase their risks of contracting HIV.

This is not only happening in Zimbabwe. In the whole of Africa, sex work is illegal except for Senegal.

In Ethiopia and Eritrea, sex workers are required to have licenses. They are protected and tolerated by the law.

Even in countries like the Netherlands which are portrayed as liberal, the rules and regulations continue making sex work unsafe.

In developed countries like the United States of America, they also take a mixed approach toward sex work. While it is illegal, the practice goes on especially in the rural parts as the women thrive to survive.

The only way of making this profession safe for women is through drafting policies that legalise sex work and implementing them.

If there is a lack of clarity, sex workers in Mandava, Zimbabwe and the world will remain subjected to violence and stigma.

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