SHE shakes her head gently and brushes her long braids from her face — as if it is a gesture of confidence — and then, like a model on the ramp, she makes her way towards a Toyota Land Cruiser that has pulled off the road a few paces away from her.
BY TAPIWA ZIVIRA/ BLESSED MHLANGA
The car’s headlights illuminate her slender, light-skinned legs, as she walks towards it, while slowly drawing open her jacket to reveal a body top exposing her cleavage and part of her belly.
She then leans on the door at the driver’s side and they chat briefly. The lady then goes around the car and jumps in before driving off into the night.
Similar incidents are witnessed daily in Harare’s unpronounced red light district and elsewhere in the low and middle-density suburbs of the capital. This appears to be the order of the day in almost all major cities and towns in the country.
For the uninitiated, this is just another day in the office for scores of commercial sex workers, who line the many streets of the Avenues, Harare’s hotbed of sex work.
Following the landmark Constitutional Court (ConCourt) ruling in May last year, which outlawed the arrest of women loitering for purposes of prostitution, sex workers no longer have to work under the cover of darkness.
Numbers of sex workers on the streets have now swelled as they freely roam the streets from midmorning until late, hoping to mop up whatever cash potential clients are willing to part with for a few moments of pleasure.
There has been an influx of women, including girls as young as 13, on the streets, where they openly flaunt their services.
“Our work is now easier, as there is no need to fear arrests or paying bribes. However, competition for the few clients available is now stiff, forcing many to work in the afternoon and mornings,” one sex worker said in an interview last week.
In a nation where unemployment levels are hovering around 90%, there has been an increase in sex workers — an illustration of the general joblessness and desperation, a trend that is not good for the country’s improving HIV and AIDS situation as more people are likely to be exposed to new infections on the backdrop of the increase in the number of people engaging in prostitution.
Currently, as of last year, there was a 38% drop in HIV and Aids-related deaths, a silver lining on Zimbabwe’s increasingly darkening cloud.
Most women who stay out of Harare have set up their bases mainly in the Avenues — which are often empty flats only furnished with beds and rented out for $10 a day to as many as five girls.
“Five of us share a two-bed flat and each pay $10 a day regardless of the number of clients one brings and once I pick my client, I check if the room is clear. If not, we stand in the kitchen and wait until the room is free,” she said.
As she talks, silently, behind the scenes, there is a simmering war going on among a number of women — some of them teenagers — as they fight for turf.
Veterans of the trade in the Avenues are unhappy with the ConCourt ruling, which while it saved them from arrests, has seen an unprecedented increase in the number of sex workers and competition for the few clients.
“Prostitutes from as far as Epworth can now come to the Avenues and charge lower rates, which kills our business,” Nancy, a sex worker who said she has been trading in the Avenues for the past six years, said.
She said before, the normal rate for a short-time romp was $10, with the rate for hiring a sex worker for the night pegged at between $30 and $50.
“So, imagine someone coming from another area and charging $5 or less for short-time and $10 for the whole night,” she said.
Asked how they operated before the ConCourt ruling, Nancy made sensational claims, saying they engaged in sex-for-freedom deals with the cops and that gave them immunity from arrest.
“The police would then arrest those coming from other areas and leave us to do our work, which protected our dominance of the Avenues,” she said.
Nancy’s assertions were buttressed by two other sex workers.
“We could give sexual favours or money to the police so they protected us, not just from competition, but from men who would attempt to abuse us,” another sex worker, Alice, said.
A snap survey of the amounts charged by sex workers in the Avenues showed that the fees now range between $5 and $10 for a short session and $15 to $20 for the whole night, a significant decline from the previous $10 to $50 range.
“On good days, I used to make more than $100 a night, but these days $20 is hard to come by,” Alice said.
Rentals are pegged at an average of $550 per month and with large-scale unemployment in the country, not many can afford the charges, leaving some property owners in the Avenues with little choice, but to turn their flats into mini brothels with huge dividends.
“We pay $50 a day and at the end of the month it adds up to just around $1 500 in rentals alone, but it works out better because we only pay when we use the facility,” another sex worker said.
Tariro, a mother of three, said she pays $350 monthly rentals for a bed-sitter flat and would need to bed 35 men to meet her rentals, although she also allows other girls to use her flat as an operating base.
“Short time is $10 and if a client wants to be entertained the whole night or entire afternoon, the rate is $60 before negotiations,” she said.
“This means for short-time bookings, I would have to sleep with 35 men just for rentals. I can’t meet my targets just by working at night.”
Short-time is the buzzword on the street because of its quick returns compared to all-night sessions.
“Short-time is more viable because you can serve at the least 10 men in a day compared to going with one guy who offers you just $40 a night after negotiations, so we prefer the shorter versions,” Tariro said.
Not every day is brisk, however, forcing some ladies to be innovative offering all kinds of services for charges as low as $3.
They even ask for freebies, a beer, drink or just $1 to buy bread or get a lift back home, as they cannot rest at the base.
According to one prostitute in Highfield, Harare, there has been a serious dip in the number of customers and they are forced to charge as little as $1 per session.
Some have resorted to wearing skimpy outfits revealing their underwear and a large portion of their bosom in broad daylight.
The competition continues to take twists and turns with a recent trend where prostitutes take to social media, particularly WhatsApp, where they post their contact details and advertise their services ranging from oral sex to massage sessions and intercourse.
Others have resorted to producing fliers and brochures marketing their services in an aggressive bid to lure clients.
One of the fliers seen by NewsDay read: “Sex-Mania. For all your sex things, d…k sucking, massaging and more. Nicky. Enjoy the professional stuff.”
When crew called one of the numbers, the woman identified as Nicky confirmed she offered sexual services.
“The difference with us is that we do not charge on short-time basis, but we charge per hour and my charge is $10 per hour for sex, oral sex is $15 per hour and massaging is $5 per hour,” she explained.
When asked how much she made from the business, Nicky declined to disclose, although she said she had not had a single booking for the day.
As prostitution seems to be thriving, this has reignited the long-standing debate on whether Zimbabwe should legalise it.
Proponents of the legalisation of sex work argue that this will sanitise the industry and protect women from the abuse they go through, as commercial sex work will be institutionalised.
In some countries where sex work is legal, all prostitutes are registered and licensed to operate, while brothels are properly regulated in what some say reduces the risks of women abuse and diseases.
Thailand has a thriving regulated sex tourism industry.
Registering prostitutes also reduces the risk of having underage girls getting into sex work, as witnessed in Southlands and Hopley, where young girls barely out of their teens could be seen soliciting for sex.
Musasa Projects director Netty Musanhu said because sex work remains illegal, sex workers were still subjected to gender-based violence and segregation in accessing health care.
“Criminalisation of sex work contributes to a situation where violence against sex workers is accepted, leaving them less likely to be protected from it,” she said.
“These ladies are often reluctant to report gender-based violence to the police. Even when they do report, their claims are swept under the carpet.”
Lawyer Caroline Mugabe said in the absence of men who confirm being approached or having approached the alleged sex workers, the crime of prostitution is difficult to prove.
“The crime of prostitution is so difficult to detect, that is why police used to arrest and detain women for loitering. Now that aspect was dealt with in terms of the law, women are seen around the CBD allegedly selling sex without deterrence or abuse from the police,” shesaid.