Feature :Climate change forcing Zim girls into sex work

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Tawanda (16) gazes calmly into the sky as the sun sets, getting ready for work as the night begins.

Tawanda, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, is among hundreds of girls from Zimbabwe’s rural areas who joined the sex trade in urban centres in recent years.

“We wait until dusk to start working, mostly our clients are the ones we protect because they do not want to be seen as one is married and others are respected people in the community. Otherwise, we are open for 24 hours,” Tawanda says.

Soon after the death of her parents, she dropped out of school as her grandmother could no longer afford fees.

After years of drought and failed crops, Tawanda could not see a future in the countryside, prompting her at age of 14 to relocate to the capital Harare in search of a better life.

“I came here as a babysitter. For six months I worked as a maid, but it was not lucrative. When the COVID-19 pandemic started, it became worse because the woman I was working for reduced my already meagre wage. So I quit the job,” she says.

Tawanda did not want to go back home and relocated to Epworth, 12km east of the capital, where after meeting friends she was initiated into sex work.

The city is notorious for violence, prostitution, and drug abuse with a population that continues to increase because of rural-to-urban migration.

Tawanda and other teenage girls gather at a spot popularly known as the “booster”, where a tall communications tower shoots into the sky.

During the day, the area is quiet, with few people around. But once night falls it is a beehive of activity as sex workers solicit for clients.

Catherine Masunda, the founder of Youth 2 Youth, a community-based organisation in Harare, says while statistics on the number of young girls involved in prostitution is difficult to quantify, the situation is worrying.

‘It’s business’
Another teenage girl, Chipo, whose name has also been changed for her safety, told Al Jazeera that the sex trade is risky, but she has no option.

Unlike in the past, job opportunities on farms are becoming fewer each year because of the effects of climate change.

“I came at the age of 16. I have a sister residing here in Epworth, I could not supplement my education because I had no money. Later on, I found myself joining sex work. Sometimes we are infected with sexually transmitted infections, but it’s business so we seek treatment,” says Chipo.

Chipo recalls the ravages of climate change in her rural home. The most worrying effects are not the droughts but flash floods, she says, which destroy crops and property — and sometimes human lives.

“In 2020, the year I finished [school], I expected to plant soyabeans, which is a less labour intensive cash crop, so that I could pay fees and rent a room. The rains came but they turned into floods and washed away my project,” says Chipo.

With well-paying work scarce in the country, the majority of people here get by as street vendors and informal manufacturers, prostitution being another prominent job.

Many of the teenage girls have had the experience of clients refusing to pay for services rendered, with some enduring sexual abuse and assault. In Zimbabwe, it is a criminal offence to solicit for sex, which makes it difficult for young women to report wrongdoing perpetrated against them to the police.

‘Dangerous trade’
Memory Kanyati, provincial director of the Zimbabwe Youth Council Harare, says the growing number of children in prostitution is a worrisome development.

“We are seeing many of them involved in this dangerous trade, a situation which is not healthy for them. As a council we represent government aspirations of seeing children acquiring life skills and having capacity to be responsible citizens,” Kanyati says.

Most areas in Zimbabwe have been hit hard by climate change with heatwaves, low precipitation, or excessive rain resulting in flash floods.

David Marekera, a village head in Maramba in Mashonaland East province, 130km south of Harare, said climate change was not only bringing hunger to the community, but destroying the future of children.

“It is very unfortunate. To us, the damage is high and irreversible at least for now. Teen boys are quitting school going into artisanal mining in the Mazowe Dam. Teen girls are going into child marriages and child prostitution because of hunger,” says
Marekera.

Zimbabwe’s National Climate Change Response Strategy states: “Climate change is the biggest threat to humanity today.”

It is estimated to cause average temperatures in Zimbabwe to rise about 30 Celsius by the end of the century. Annual rainfall could decline by 5%-18%, especially in the south of the country.

Dropping out
Onita Sibanda, from Hwange district in northwestern Zimbabwe, says most of the girls her age moved to urban areas to escape the effects of climate change.

“It’s difficult to quantify the numbers flocking out of the villages in Hwange. But our fields have not been producing enough in the past years,” she told Al Jazeera.

“Generally, the weather is bad. Here in Hwange, we are experiencing flash floods and storms almost every year for the past three years. Girls are dropping out or just after finishing schools going to the city to seek jobs, but later turning to prostitution,” says Onita.

Daniel Sithole — a climate analyst and director of Green Shango Trust, a non-profit organisation focusing on climate change mitigation — says Zimbabwean women are the most affected by global warming.

“Women are disproportionately vulnerable to the effects of climate change, which could, in turn, exacerbate existing gender disparities,” says Sithole.Al Jazeera