BY PHYLLIS MBANJE
SEX work has always been shrouded in discrimination, stigma and disdain, with most societies in Zimbabwe taking up the moral crusade against those who use it as form of employment.
Behind it all are sad and harrowing stories of young girls mostly forced into this trade by circumstances beyond their control and the need to survive.
Their stories reflect how economic challenges have left them with no alternative means of survival and ended up in sex trade, itself associated with the spread of HIV.
Recently three sex workers shared their stories on how they were forced by fate to take up this trade which has its own pitfalls and dangers.
Rose (not her real name) is a 22-year-old auto electrician, beautiful and with a warm smile. But behind that façade is a dark secret that she keeps away from her community.
Despite her amazing work as an ambassador for the Determined, Resilient, Empowered, Aids-Free, Mentored and Safe (DREAMS) initiative which is being implemented by the Family Aids Caring
Trust (Fact) and other partners in Manicaland, she is still a sex worker.
“My parents died when I was in Grade 5 and my circumstances changed. I had no inheritance and had no means to survive. My grandmother was struggling to keep us alive so I joined sex work after older girls told me it would bring in the much-needed cash,” she said.
Rose was barely 15 when she started to sleep with men. Older men took advantage of her tender age and abused her often. Some would even beat her up and refuse to pay for the services.
“I didn’t know anything about protection and besides could not negotiate for safe sex. I thought I was helping myself,” she said.
She got pregnant when she was in Form Two, but continued with her work despite the pregnancy.
“Actually, many men still sought my services in my condition,” she said. She gave birth to a baby boy, who is now in Grade 3, and handed him over to her grandmother so she could continue with sex work.
However, she was fortunate enough to meet a peer educator who shared information on the risk of getting infected with sexually transmitted diseases.
“I became enlightened and took my very first HIV test which was negative. I was referred to Fact and got initiated in the DREAMS project,” she said.
The two-year initiative is supported by the United States President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief and is being implemented in 10 countries across eastern and southern Africa.
Zimbabwe is one of the countries and in Manicaland the initiative has been rolled out in five districts. Its ambitious target is to reduce new HIV infections among young women and girls by 40%.
Rose enrolled for a course and is now a qualified auto electrician, but doubles up as a sex worker because her income is still low.
“Although I am still a sex worker, I am now empowered and I know what I want. I practice safe sex all the time and teach my peers to follow suit,” she said.
Chipo (19) and, like Rose, got into sex work due to poverty. She looks no more than 16, but already has a child and is a sex worker. But she is also going to school and is determined to change her circumstances.
“This programme has given me hope. I juggle school work and sex work. I am always tired because during the day I am at school and at night I am on the streets,” she said.
Chipo’s experiences resonate with Rose’s, but she is confident once she attains her dream of finishing school she will emancipate herself.
“Some men can be rough and even make you do things that are degrading. Once a client spit on me and kicked me, but what can I do. I need to survive. I am grateful for the opportunity that I have been given to be a better person.
Fortunately, she is still HIV negative.
However, for Maria another sex worker she was not so lucky and was infected by one of her many clients. At 42 she has many challenges.
“My age is working against me and younger girls get more clients than me. But I am not deterred because I have been taught to keep taking my ARVs daily without fail,” she said.
She is a beneficiary of a money lending project under Fact which has afforded her a second chance to send her children to school and feed herself.
“People should not pity me because I know my status and am taking my medication.
“Many are unaware of their HIV status and that is sad as well as dangerous. I now teach others to seriously consider protection,” she said.