Teenage sex work booms amid Zimbabwe’s economic tremors

Rutendo Chirume

“I will be turning 17-years-old in October but I started transactional sex when I was in form two when I
was 15-years-old, charging as little as US$2 for a session,” says Rejoice, a teenage sex worker from
Zimbabwe’s oldest town, Masvingo.

Teenage sex workers parade themselves in a bid to attract clients

“All I wanted was money for food and some pocket money. I wanted to be like other children at school
who had food, pocket money and other things.

“Growing up under the care of a hostile stepmother meant that I had no love and care to an extent that
I would go to school on an empty stomach. On most cases I would only to eat four slices of bread when I
came back from school after 1pm and then wait for supper.”

At the age of 16, last year, Rejoice fell pregnant and was chased out of home.

She found herself stranded on the street, pregnant with an uncertain future ahead of her. She feared
the worst and saw herself walking along the same unfortunate path that her mother treaded.
Having had unprotected sex with many men, Rejoice had no idea, who had made her pregnant. That was
the difference with her mother.

“I was told my mother fell pregnant with me while she was much younger. When she approached my
father for marriage, he refused because he was already married to my stepmom. I had a very
unfortunate upbringing and had limited options after being chased out because of the pregnancy. I
made friends with some girls of the same age who stay near Mucheke Rank and with their help, I got rid
of the pregnancy through some traditional concoction supplied by an old woman from the surburb,
Rejoice said.

“I started going into public bars to look for men. At first, I was charging very little, like US$2. With a lot
more experience and maturity, things have become better. I charge more and I have my own room. I
have been surviving solely through selling my body since then (after being chased away from home),”
she said.

Rejoice is not in a club of one. Many Zimbabwean teenage girls have been forced by their
circumstances, to sell their bodies to survive.

The economic hardships and the gradual collapse of the extended family system have made it tougher
for orphans and other vulnerable persons such as Rejoice to procure basic needs such as shelter and
food, forcing many into prostitution.

Zimbabwe is one of the countries with the highest rates of teenage prostitution globally.

A report from the Zimbabwe Republic Police obtained during a provincial workshop of Zimbabwe
Council of Churches (ZCC) held at Chevron Hotel in Masvingo on 30 April 2021 revealed that more than a
hundred girls are sexually exploited daily in the country because they are still young to consent for sex.
According to the statistics obtained from National AIDS Council’s office in Masvingo recorded more than
half of commercial sex workers are teenagers.

Child prostitution in Zimbabwe has been increasing on the backdrop the deepening socio-economic
problems which have been aggravated by the unpremeditated Covid-19 induced lockdown. The
lockdown saw many people working in the informal sector failing to send their children to school.
In 2019, about 60% of Zimbabwe’s children in primary school were sent home for failing to pay fees,
according to the Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee cited by Development Aid in its article
called ‘Child prostitution surges in hunger-hit Zimbabwe’.

A 2021 human rights report by the Family Aids Caring Trust Zimbabwe and the United Nations Children’s Fund in its 2021 Human Rights Report released on April 13, cited that 20 000 girls had dropped out of school since 2020.

In an interview Chief Neromwe of Chiredzi said many teenage girls in his home area have left to the city
for greener pastures, which unfortunately includes prostitution. He said, because of economic hardships, some parents were marrying off their daughters to get rid of the burden of taking care of them.
“Life is very difficult here,” Chief Neromwe said.

“The effects of climate change are hitting hard in this part of the country. Most families are struggling to
make ends meet. This is largely because of the high inflation and economic downturn being experienced
in the country. The hardships have contributed to the larger number of school dropouts, particularly
girls, who either escape into early marriage or turn to prostitution. We have lost many girls as young as
11-years to the city. The lucky ones get employed as housemaid in the city while the rest indulge into
prostitution directly or indirectly.”

According to World Food Program statistics, Zimbabwe is among the world’s top ten countries with the
highest inflation.

The UN’s Global Food Crisis Report Forecast of April 2020 pointed that some 4.3 million Zimbabweans
were food insecure.

The economic decline has exposed many girls to child sexual exploitation. The Centre for Sexual Health, HIV and Aids Research (CeSHHAR) finds that more than 57 percent of female sex workers in the country are HIV positive while UNAIDS estimated that in 2018 a third of all new HIV cases were found in the population aged between 15 and 24. A total of 9 000 new cases were amongst young women and 4 200 among young men.

Despite the scourge of HIV/AIDS and sexually related infections, teenage prostitution also exposes the
young girls to drugs, gender-based violence, early pregnancy and unsafe abortion among other social
vices which affects their education and future.

Zimbabwe National Council for the Welfare of Children Director Taylor Nyanhete said the judicial system
was also playing a role in the high numbers of exploited girls arguing they are not protected enough.

“Teenage prostitution is even common among young boys now. There is a worrying emergence of older
women luring young boys into sex for money and material things. What is happening to these boys and
girls is child exploitation not prostitution. Some of these children, particularly girls, start doing sex when
they are as young as 12 years. Of course in this situation, they would have consented for sex but according to the law they are below the age to consent for sex. It is a complex issue which needs the
government and all responsible authorities to work together,” he said.

The Constitutional Court in 2022 raised the age of consent from 16 years to 18 years. Teenage girls leaving on the streets are among the most exploited.

Girls and Women Empowerment Network Trust Director Kumbirai Kahiya said in many cases adult men
were behaving like vultures who prey on young girls.

Kumbirai Kahiya, Director for Girls & Women Empowerment Trust

“Girls are easily exploited and abused in the area of sex work. I would not want to call it sex work for
girls. As we are saying, at law they cannot consent, so its adult men taking advantage of underaged girls
using them for sex and trying to clean their conscience by paying. Girls who are inexperienced risk
getting STIs, unwanted pregnancies, being brutally raped and more,” she said.

“Mentally and emotionally, they remain broken and hurting. Adults have a duty to protect girls. So,
when those adults exploit girls, these girls have no one to turn to and become more vulnerable and
easily further exploited. The cycle continues until they become women who will be exploited. Our laws
do not recognise sex work, so for the girls because they are young and unprotected by the social
institutions, its pure exploitation. Being removed from this environment needs more than a safe shelter and food. They need psychosocial support, rehabilitation, love and care.

“Each girl has a different experience they need to heal from. So, helping them needs to pay attention
and respond to each story differently. Society needs to rebuild its moral fabric and protect the girl child;
and not blame her for being abused. Yes, they can be removed from the streets but this needs a holistic
approach, one that considers where they are coming from, the lives they had gotten used to and to
slowly rehabilitate them without judging,” she said.

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