Tuesday, August 17th, 2010 - 7 comments

A silent phenomenon spreads HIV

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.

  • Is the solution purely a matter of getting information to the sex workers? Or is there more we can do?
  • How do we locate the communities where sex workers are performing AI?
  • Why do social norms and taboos get in the way of humanitarian efforts, and what can we do to change this?
  • Why don’t local journalists highlight this issue?
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Guest Editor

Robert Mukondiwa

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About

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.

Comments (7)

Martha
Tuesday 24th August, 2010, 9:36am

Great article, Robert. We are indeed sitting on a time-bomb - and powers that be will not allow anyone to talk about it. Telling us AI is unChristian, against our culture and tradition will not take it away. It is happening. Would you have trouble getting your story published elsewhere?

Kikelomo
Tuesday 24th August, 2010, 12:41pm

WAOH! Great post Robert. It is so sad and am sure majority of those infected are young people. Good questions you asked cos I have been thinking about them too. For the first question, I believe more can be done in terms empowering the people, so they can trade, go to school, or something. I really don't believe anyone desires to do Commercial Sex work as an occupation.

Do u really think there are answers to this questions and if there are, will the people be willing to change their behavior.

Thanks for sharing man!

Robert Mukondiwa
Tuesday 24th August, 2010, 4:23pm

Well Thank you very much Martha. Truth is i would indeed get trouble getting something published in both the Public and Private media...experience has taught me that much. Kikelemo, i agree with you that there needs to be better education. However, i think people have a right to become Commercial Sex workers. Mind you some of them are in it because, believe it or not, it is a passion and a calling as i would find my work as a journalist soothing. As people we are different like that. However if we give them adequate information and access to prevention tools openly acknowledging the existence of such sexual practices in the communities, Commercial sex workers will make an unformed decision and know the risks they face before they indulge. Acceptance of what is going on around us is the first step and giving access to uncensored sex-education is a vital second step in protecting our people and future generations. But then again, these are just my opinions hey?

Ernestine
Wednesday 25th August, 2010, 9:10am

Thank you for this very informative piece. And I can only imagine how you felt being a first hand receiver of such information. Sometimes these things are overwhelming even for people like us who are committed to contributing towards change for a better world.
Africa and it's taboos are barriers well known to all of us. And unless we can find ways to tackle the prolems most of our work will only land on barren soil.
I would like to look at question 2 by sharing experience on a job a Community Safety Initiative (CSI) team of ARC used in Guinea to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS and the number of GBV cases among Liberian and Sierra Leonean Refugee sex workers. To get into their circles first of all, a number of influencial sex workers were targeted and worked with to get "trained change agents." They, in turn, show the team their different trade areas in the country and explain how things worked within the sex trade circle. The team in no time had a full hand and was seriously working for change. Change was slow and not 100%, but change took place. Once the change agents could help the CSI team to identify their trade centers, they could carry on from there with the help of the target group.

Kenny Goldberg
Wednesday 25th August, 2010, 4:22pm

Hey Robert:

Great story on a disturbing topic. What a dangerous trend.

Sophie Aigner
Thursday 26th August, 2010, 7:19pm

This is one of the most informative pieces I've ever read.
I think getting the information to the sex workers is necessary, but just like in any issue, they probably won't listen until it's told to them by one who has been in their place. For example, maybe if there is a woman who had to resort to the sex industry and has been a victim of this and wants to advocate against it, the current sex workers would see how risky it really is and be more inspired to make a change.

I think social norms will always hinder humanitarian efforts because of the attitude that "if they did it and nothing happened, then I can do it and nothing will happen either." I think that to help this, once again, an advocate who has been victimized by the act needs to step forward to stand against this social norm. However, for a victim to step forward would take a trememdous amount of courage, so it is understandable that this may not be possible.

I don't feel I know enough to answer the other questions, but thanks for highlighting the issue, which I know must have taken a lot of courage in itself.

Robert Mukondiwa
Monday 30th August, 2010, 12:23pm

Thanks for the continued responses. Indeed there is a need for people in these scenarios or who have been in these scenarios to 'come out' and tell their stories. However, as you have pointed out, many are afraid to do this. Indeed many of the women i talked to are known sex workers but would never want to discuss the intimate details of the services they offered to their clients. This is despite the fact that we all 'reasonably' know what they may offer but they would rather not speak about it in public. I know of a woman who was raped and she stepped out and told her tale encouraging others to report rape. it worked as it was coming from someone who had 'been there' too. But this movement of AI in 'conservative' Africa may never know or see such courage to our detriment.

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