Young sex workers in rural Zimbabwe have embarked on a fatal path that increases their likelihood of contracting and spreading HIV. Poverty and a lack of information intensify the problem, but instead of embracing the challenge with effective solutions, many are turning away in denial.
Disclaimer: Please note that this post contains adult language and situations.
Zimbabwe is fraught with taboos by day, yet teeming with an opposite reality by night. People profess not to like under the sun what is exactly their dish of choice under the moon.
My journey took me to the rural enclave of Mashonaland East Province, north-east of the country’s capital Harare, towards the border area of Nyamapanda. Here, as is the case with many places where peoples converge, the cultural melting pot is as much a blessing as it is a curse. And a phenomenon with a strength as powerful as a silent inferno is raging within the deceptive tranquility.
Rural sex workers offer a new service
Every night, young people are engaging in all forms of sexual ‘tasks’ to pander to the whim of their clients. Yet they do not receive adequate information on the potentially fatal consequences in this region where HIV and AIDs has found a permanent home.
While the dangers of unsafe sex are well documented and the need to use condoms has all but been overemphasised, the information is still not reaching the rural populations where a new threat is growing: For varying reasons and with varying results, young women are being forced to ‘cross the line’ and engage in anal intercourse (AI).
In a complex web of sexual conflict, there are tonnes of negative effects that ripple and explode. For a start, in a country where there is little to no education on AI, these women entering uncharted territory with no knowledge of the consequences; it presents six times the risks of contracting HIV than frontal intercourse.
“Ndichiri mhandara.” (“I am still a maiden.”)
Many teenagers prefer AI because they can maintain their status in society as ‘virgins,’ preserving themselves for marriage in a society where a ‘virgin’ is the Holy Grail for a young man hoping to find a lifelong partner.
These young ‘virgins’ will soon be in contact with their lovers. The young men will have stumbled upon rare gems; virgins. However, much damage may already have been done in a land that is still grappling to contain the damaging and raging effects of HIV and AIDs. “The little boys come from across the country and fall in love with these girls. They have hymen…all right, but goodness knows they have been having sex for ages!” says Bongi. “I would never allow my son to have a girlfriend in this town.” She has good reason.
The young girls will also readily offer their clients this service often because they are afraid of falling pregnant at a time when fending for a child would be an added burden, and would put them out of work for awhile. Plus, they would have an extra mouth to feed.
Lack of education and money spreads HIV
“Some are doing that mostly because business is low these days and clients from the other side of the border in Mozambique who still are ready to pay for sex usually ask for anal sex,” Bongi, a resident of the border town told me. “In this age of austerity, those who pay will be given whatever they want just so the family survives.”
While some of these sex workers told me they use condoms, there is always the added ‘incentive’ to abandon latex altogether. “Sometimes these guys come to have sex and they say they prefer bareback sex for an added fee. We usually grant their wish as this is also a financial consideration,” I was told by mother of two, Miriam. She confessed that her reasons for engaging in AI and administering oral sex are purely financial and not a quest to preserve her ‘virginity,’ which is a distant memory.
While the workers say they used to get a lot of money, charging US$5 per session, the return to normalcy in the Zimbabwean economy means there are less people travelling to the border town. That means less customers, less demand and a need to provide ‘sale’ type rock bottom prices. “They can go for as low as US$2,” Bongi reveals. And for an added dollar, the condom can bid farewell.
The greatest heart-stopper for me was the fact that the clients and the workers are both high-risk groups. Trucks drivers who spend long days and nights away from home, travelling across Zimbabwe, South Africa, Malawi and Mozambique, can easily sleep with various women everywhere they go; while commercial the workers ‘welcome’ clients from all four countries (and more) whilst they are stationed at their border posts!
Questioning the definition of “sex”
“It is not sex. Sex up your crack is not sex,” insists Rumbi; another ‘virgin’ worker. “I have never slept with a man from here,” she says touching her zipper area. She says she is a student and only experiments with the drivers to get money. “After all I have only done it [AI] once. All the other times they ask us to suck them and we agree for a fee,” she says.
Yet that is a problem in itself. This is a country in which over 90% of people have never heard of oral dams of gum guards, let alone seen one, nevermind used it!
A quiet that kills
Talking about such types of gratification is taboo and little if any information is ever passed amongst a youth that is becoming ever so experimental. When it comes to AI, this society doesn’t hear it, doesn’t see it, doesn’t speak about it, but – if the hem of the country is anything to go by – it DOES it all the time.
The silent epidemic looks set to devour a young and experimental population as people hide their heads in the soil from a known reality. The youth may be destroyed for lack of knowledge…or worse still, a lack of commitment to deliver the known facts to them in the name of ‘social norms’ and tradition. The sad consequence is that the spread of HIV is rapidly fuelled by the absence of information.
As the magenta sun sets on the small but sexually charged town, life amongst the workers becomes visible. Tonight, there may very well be another young woman who will walk into the night a virgin and wake up, hymen intact, but with a new disease to grapple with at the end of it all.
I am the News Editor for a Zimbabwean Newspaper called the H-Metro. I contributed to the book, Thembi’s Story and Other Autobiographical Stories, published by Macmillan South Africa. I attended the Women Deliver conference in Washington DC as one of the 100 Young Leaders. My nominee for the CNN Heroes of 2009, Betty Makoni, was in the top ten and I got to accompany her to Los Angeles to receive the award for her work with women who have survived spousal abuse. My nomination and citation was in the top ten of 8,000 other nominations. I got health training from the National Press Foundation USA, Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, International Aids Society, Microbicides India 2008, Safaids and UNFPA.