FOR weeks, Jane Midzi*(13), a young girl who lives in the streets of Harare has been finding it difficult to open up about her ordeal after contracting a Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI).
The young girl has been enduring pain in silence since she had planned not to tell anyone about her problem; not even her closest counterparts, who also live on the streets.
But her friends, who believe that they have become one big family, could not let her suffer alone after they discovered that she had contracted an STI.
Amanda Nyati*(19), one of the homeless mothers who often finds shelter at Copacabana Rank in Harare’s Central Business District, seems to have taken the responsibility of taking care of other girls living on the streets.
“When I heard that Jane was hiding something from us and that she could have contracted some disease, I decided to check up on her and give her the support and help that she might need,” Nyati said.
“However, the journey to get her treated was not easy since she was not ready to disclose the matter to us.”
Nyati and other girls living on the streets decided to trap Jane and forcibly made her open her legs.
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“That is when we discovered that she had some growth on her private part that looks like pink warts,” said Nyati.
Jane had an STI.
As a girl who has been living on the streets for quite some time, Jane has been struggling to survive. For her to be able to get a day’s meal, she would rather get sexually exploited which resulted in her contracting an STI.
“Just like many other girls on the streets, Jane has been engaging in sex with different men just for a day’s meal. We have seen different men both homeless and others coming in big cars exploiting girls for money and I believe this is how she might have contracted an STI without knowing the person who could have infected her,” said Amanda.
“We took her to a new start centre in town, where she said that she was raped. We were asked to bring a police report but due to fear, we could not risk going to the police as we knew that the police could arrest us as they usually do.
“So we just left her there and right now I do not know where she is whether she is alive or not. What I know is we failed her,” said Nyati as she narrated the struggle that they faced in an attempt to access healthcare services due to a lack of support systems for underprivileged people like the homeless community.
The ordeal faced by Jane is a constant reminder of the barriers faced by homeless people when they need to access healthcare services in the country.
Life in the streets
Habitat for Humanity estimates that Zimbabwe had 1.2 million homeless people in 2013. The figure is expected to have risen since then due to various factors, including the deteriorating economic conditions.
Girls living on the street face challenges when trying to access healthcare services leading to an increase in the spread of STIs, including HIV and AIDS.
Although Zimbabwe’s national HIV policies and programs have resulted in increased access to treatment and viral load suppression among adults living with HIV and contributed to the country being on course to achieve the UNAIDS goal to end the AIDS epidemic by 2030, people living in the streets remain discriminated. They face difficulties in their quest to access sexual reproductive health products.
Like many other countries, Zimbabwe has male and female condoms which have been made available to prevent sexual transmission of HIV and other STIs. Condoms are however not easily accessible to people living on the streets.
The failure to access such Sexual Reproductive Health products has seen hundreds of homeless people across Zimbabwe’s towns and cities being exposed to STIs.
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“Since it is not easy for us to get access to such SRHR prevention products, most of the times we end up having unprotected sex and to make matters worse it is with multiple partners,” said James Chikoza (29) commonly known in the streets as ‘Soja’.
Chikoza’s sentiments were supported by Nyati would pointed out that most people living on the streets do not value relationships and being faithful.
Speaking during a World Homeless Day Conference in Harare on October 10, 2023, National AIDS Council (NAC) Communications Officer, Tadiwa Nyatanga said the question of HIV and AIDS and Zimbabwe’s homeless people has for years been a difficult issue to address.
“There are challenges faced by people on the streets especially when it comes to accessing HIV testing but it is sad that even though HIV and AIDS prevalence has been higher among women as compared to men (15.3 percent vs 10.2 percent), the casualties have been higher in men as they have been shying away from getting tested,” said Nyatanga.
Rosemary Gacha (29) another homeless mother living along Julius Nyerere street said that although although they have been trying to establish their own families, the situation in the streets forces one to end up sleeping with different men for survival without worrying about their HIV status.
‘What we focus on is how to get a day’s meal,” she said.
However, with homeless people soldiering on with life on the streets, access to antiretroviral tablets are not easily accessible contributing to the increase in figures of people living with HIV but not on treatment.
Zimbabwe has a population of 15 million people. Statistics made available by UNICEF highlight that 54% of new HIV infections are in people under the age of 20.
Health experts pointed out that stigma and discrimination are the common barriers preventing HIV-positive homeless from accessing treatment.
Homeless people have limited space to participate and have their problems heard or acted upon.
Stigma and Discrimination
Most of the people in the streets have been treated as criminals according to Zimbabwe’s Vagrancy law.
The Vagrancy Act (Chapter 10:25) criminalises homelessness and gives power to police to arrest vagrants without a warrant.
However, Policy and Advocacy consultant, Chido Hungwe said homelessness is a complex issue that requires a multi-faceted approach including improving the lives of the homeless population through working towards a more equitable society for all.
“There is a need to develop and strengthen supportive services, such as mental health care, substance abuse treatment, and access to Sexual Reproductive Health Services to address the issues faced by homeless people,” said Hungwe.
Through her; As I Am Foundation initiative, Founder Tinevimbo Matambanadzo has been working hard to bridge the gap of making sure that the homeless could have access to Sexual Reproductive Health products as well as have the skills to change their lives.
“After I was introduced to the homeless community by a friend I was heartbroken when I learnt about the issues that are faced by the homeless. I decided to collaborate with my friend in doing charity work for the homeless by mobilising for any resources that I could get that would contribute towards training them in life skills.
After several encounters with homeless people, Matambanadzo realised that they also have dreams and ambitions like everyone else, despite being largely regarded as unruly citizens.
Matambanadzo says their rights should be respected.
“I would like to believe that people ended up on the street yesterday due to different circumstances but this does not mean that they should be discriminated against,” Matambanadzo says.
Matambanadzo distributes sanitary pads to women on the streets and also tries to raise awareness of the importance of SRHR for homeless people.
“I believe that not having those things takes away the dignity of women. The menstrual health period is quite a hard time for every woman to go through. But, it’s even worse when you are a woman who’s living on the street,” Matambanadzo said.
As I Am Foundation is a non-profit organisation that aims to change needy and dependent disadvantaged people into self-dependent active citizens of society.
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