HAILING from Bulawayo, Barbara Zengeni (38) is a mother of three who describes her source of livelihood as something “which is always in season”.
BY SOFIA MAPURANGA
Unlike the majority of those in her trade who prefer to remain in the shadows of anonymity, Barbs — as Zengeni is affectionately known within her circles — says her openness boosts her profession as a sex worker.
She attributed her attitude and confidence as a “thigh vendor” to her 16 years’ experience in the trade, something which has seen her becoming the unofficial spokesperson of the many women who live off sex due to a variety of reasons.
Despite the pain and abuse associated with the trade, Barbs is at least happy that she has put some of her earnings from prostitution to good use.
“I have managed to send my children to school and the eldest is now in university because I have told them that they should follow their dreams. I am here to support them all the way,” she said.
Zengeni said because of the contribution made by women and girls in her trade to the livelihood of their families, it was important that sex workers were officially recognised in the country.
She is a member of the Sexual Rights Centre (SRC), an organisation pushing for a sexual rights culture through challenging behaviour and attitudes, while empowering vulnerable communities through advocating for their legal, social and cultural rights.
Zengeni called for the inclusion of sex workers in all reproductive health and rights programming.
“People should understand that you can be a sex worker and still have a conscience to know why you are doing what you are doing,” she said, adding that a number of sex workers were breadwinners for their extended families.
She noted that sex workers also invested in other lucrative income-generating initiatives because no sane person would engage in the trade for fun given it was high risk.
“Not every sex worker is in this business just for the fun of it, so that is why we are saying people must take us seriously because we are a big constituency,” Zengeni said.
According to the World Health Organisation, female sex workers were 14 times more likely to have HIV than other women globally. The UNAids reports that Zimbabwe had one of the world’s largest HIV epidemics, with almost 17% of the 15 to 49-year-olds living with the virus.
The organisation estimated that about 1,6 million out of the 13 million Zimbabweans were HIV positive, the majority of them women.
To help in the fight against the spread of the virus, HIV campaigners have over the years advocated for increased condom use among key populations including truck drivers and sex workers operating from hotspots such as border towns like Beitbridge. This was despite that in Zimbabwe, sex work was illegal.
Zengeni said one could make up to $200 on a good day, but due to the economic decline in the country, many were pocketing between $50 and $100 daily.
“It will also now depend on how well you treat your clients because we have people that visit Zimbabwe who look for their regular sex workers from other countries such as South Africa, Botswana or even Namibia,” she said.
She lamented the harsh operating environment, however, accusing the law enforcement agents of violating their freedoms.
“The police refuse to let us take our medication when they arrest us. We have girls that have been arrested and they skipped their medication,” she said.
She said besides demanding free sex, police officers were often reluctant to assist sex workers that would have been raped by clients.
“Just because someone is a sex worker is no ticket that people must just force themselves on us. To us that is rape,” she said.
“Our challenge is that when we go to report rape cases at police stations, we are not taken seriously to the extent that we have cases of sex workers getting killed and the police do not treat the matters with the seriousness that it deserves.”
Zengeni said while her colleagues faced all sorts of unimaginable things on the streets, sex workers were sometimes engaged by clients who made them sleep with dogs at gunpoint.
“Street kids also beat us up all night and they sometimes harass us, wanting to steal the money that we would have made,” she added.
Stacy Mukwena (34) from Mbare, Harare, concurred that some clients were like characters from hell.