Teenage commercial sex workers are finding themselves at the centre of the HIV and Aids storm amid concerns of widespread lack of condom use and a spike in the number of infections among this demographic, despite the country’s continuing HIV and Aids campaigns, which health authorities say has seen a drop in prevalence in the past few years.
Young girls have become a permanent feature of night life here, and with last year’s economic turnaround, the festive season saw many cashing in on the free spending of those with disposable income.
Teenage commercial sex workers have discovered a boom in the sector and frequent city nightclubs but clients, patrons and barmen who spoke in separate interviews report that there is little concern for condom use among teenage prostitutes, a claim the teenage sex workers did not dispute.
The teenagers can be seen anywhere, from dingy hotel lobbies to posh pubs, without any concern for protection against HIV.
While they may be aware of the risks involved, they are not in a position to negotiate with clients who are ready to pay higher fees for unprotected sex.
Some revealed that while they had heard of the female condom, they have never bothered to learn more about it.
This is despite recommendations by health professionals and the Ministry of Health that the use of this prophylactic is empowering for women, as it allows them to decide on which protection to use during sex.
“I have a steady client and we have since ceased using condoms,” said one teenage commercial sex worker who only gave her name as Tasha.
“What use is it anyway? If I insist on condoms he will simply look for someone else to spend his money on,” she said, which was a common response among the young women who are commercial sex workers.
Another sex worker, who said her name was Beyonce, said matter-of-factly: “If you are concerned about HIV and Aids, you stay home.”
While it has been suggested that commercial sex workers carry condoms in their purses to offer their clients, Beyonce said carrying condoms in her handbag is “unlady- like”.
Ironically she asks: “Imagine if my mother found condoms in my purse?” highlighting still-existing attitudes concerning safe sex and cultural considerations that demand delayed sexual initiation, when teenagers like Beyonce are already earning a living from sex.
The US Centre for Reproductive Law and Policy, working in conjunction with the Harare-based Child and Law Foundation, has found that health workers turn away young unmarried youth seeking condoms and hormonal contraception unless their parents are notified.
This itself defies customs that demand abstinence when in fact teenagers like Tasha and Beyonce are already selling sex.
Amid continuing deprivation despite the country’s economic recovery claims, social workers say young women are increasingly taking over Bulawayo’s night life and fend for themselves through commercial sex work.
“Since I have been working here, I have seen little interest in patrons buying condoms but these are people I know are regular clients of these young girls,” said Richard Baleni (not real name), a barman at a city pub.
“Maybe they buy them elsewhere but I don’t believe that,” Baleni said. According to UNAids, despite the decline of prevalence in Zimbabwe over the past the few years, the 15-19 year-old age group, in particular, still remains highly exposed to HIV infection.
The UN agency notes that the young women have become high risk because they are more vulnerable and susceptible to HIV infection biologically, economically and culturally than men.
Professor Simon Gregson, a researcher working on HIV epidemiology at the Biomedical Research and Training Institute in Harare, says despite the reported unprotected sex of teenage prostitutes, their representation in the spread of infections can still remain small.
“It is quite possible for HIV prevalence to increase in one demographic at the same time it is declining overall, especially when the group concerned is small,” Gregson said.
“But this is not to say that if it is true that teenage sex workers are having unprotected sex, we shouldn’t be concerned and try to come up with programmes to help them recognise the dangers and do something to protect themselves,” he said.
Zimbabwe is one of many countries in Southern Africa where multiple concurrent sex partners are still viewed as a cultural norm, especially among men, and researchers say this has stoked the spread of HIV and Aids.
Yet the circumstances of teenage commercial sex workers like Tasha, who routinely have unprotected sex, could point to deeper challenges the country faces in maintaining its gains against HIV and Aids, according to health workers.
“The fact that these young girls have chosen this as a way of life means they have no bargaining clout, as the sex is always with older clients who tend to prefer young prostitutes based on the belief they are Aids-free,” says HIV counsellor Patricia Moyo.
“I talk to many young girls living with HIV and the stories they tell are the same: they could not tell their partners anything about condom use.
These are girls who already know the consequences but because of their economic circumstances throw caution to the wind.”
According to Moyo, what makes the circumstances of these young girls different from their peers who are involved with older men is that these girls are out there at night “consciously” earning money as commercial sex workers with multiple strangers.
“Their friends who sleep with sugar daddies are not out there at night and tend to have one steady older man, who nevertheless exposes them to the same risks,” Moyo said.
And with the city lights continuing to provide what seems to be an irresistible lure for teenagers like Tasha, there are fears that this fight is far from over as older men continue to seek out younger prostitutes.