Plight of sex workers

Plight of sex workers

prostitutionsON the eve of the 2010 New Year, Carol (not her real name) put on her skimpy second-hand lime green dress with puffy sleeves, her donated black heels that made a crunching sound and a pair of her friend’s cinnamon-coloured stockings and stood at the corner in front of a hotel in the Avenues area of Harare. Only days away from her 18th birthday, she had a daughter who had just turned a year old and an infant whom she had just taken for her six-week check-up.  The trio were living with their widowed grandmother in the slum settlement of Epworth and needed money for food and rent.

So she decided to do what she had seen other women in her neighbourhood do — sell their bodies for money. That marked her first step into the dark, the violent world of prostitution. Now 22, Carol is an established commercial sex worker who rents an apartment in the Avenues area of Harare.  Her younger daughter, sadly, passed away in 2011 and with her grandmother also deceased; she has managed to raise her first daughter single handedly from proceeds of transactional sex.

Carol is a classic case of little girls who were pushed into ‘the world’s oldest profession’ by circumstances. She stopped going to school when her mother, the only parent she ever knew, died when she was just 11, leaving her under the custody of her unemployed grandmother who survived on selling vegetables by the roadside. Her early stages into transactional sex were marked by violence and desperation. She was a constant victim of physical abuse from the older commercial sex workers who felt threatened by her. Clients also took advantage of her youthfulness and often slipped out of her rented lodgings without paying for the service.

She would learn the tricks with time, establishing herself as one of the most prominent commercial sex workers in Harare and realising a decent income until recently when police launched a crackdown on “ladies of the night.” The Financial Gazette caught up with Carol on Sunday afternoon, just after a police raid. Along with three others of her trade, she sat at the entrance of the hostel they rent, openly soliciting for sex.

There is a clothing shop at the ground floor of Carol’s flat in the Avenues area and this writer intended to check on some outfits. Walking into the yard is all Carol and her colleagues want. “I can help you try some nice shirts, let me come along,” Carol was already on her feet and giving directions without even waiting for the response.
A conversation was quickly struck as Carol showed the writer around the shop. This writer made it clear that he was after her story and she could help a great deal by sharing.

First she was hesitant to talk but she later opened up, walking up and down the spacious shop and that is when she shared part of how she ended up being a commercial sex worker. “So things were fairly good until recently when the police decided to raid us. They come in their trucks and beat us if we try to resist arrest. Most of the times, we admit that we are guilty although we do not fully understand the charge. My highest level in school was Grade Six. I cannot understand most of the things they say to us and we end up paying the fines they require,” she says.

“You missed them by a few minutes. They were here and they moved from flat to flat picking our colleagues. I escaped simply by pretending to be an ordinary passerby.”
“We discovered that when the police arrest us, the easiest way out is to admit to being guilty. We pay the US$20 fine and come straight back here to continue with our work,” she said. Like many in her trade, she is clueless when it comes to legal representation.

But chairperson of the Women’s Coalition, an umbrella body of all women’s organisations in Zimbabwe, Virginia Muwanigwa, said the women can access legal advice.
“We have organisations within the Women’s Coalition that give legal advice to these women and it is available to all those who would seek it.” Women’s rights groups have slammed the police for selective application of the law relating to “soliciting for purposes of prostitution” and harassing all females found at odd hours in most of the country’s numerous night spots.

“We are concerned if we see that law enforcement agents say they want to stop prostitution and proceed to harass women only. Why do they target only women when prostitution involves both men and women? They should be targeting everyone involved in it. If the decision-makers are really serious about it, then they should not be seen just harassing women but tackling the issue holistically,” Muwanigwa said.

Beatrice Savadye, a prominent women rights campaigner and director of the Real Opportunities for Transformation Support a humanitarian organisation with a bias towards women’s rights says arresting female commercial sex workers is discriminatory and unfair.  She believes that society needs to tackle the root causes. “We have to look at the bigger picture and address the root causes. Women need to be economically empowered. If you do a proper research, you will find out that most of them did not get into commercial sex work willingly but as a means to escape from poverty. They get into it for survival. For those who chose to do it as a profession, we need to ensure that they are doing it in a safe manner so that both them and their clients are safe from HIV and AIDS.

“What is even more worrying is that there is selective application of the law as we do not see males who solicit for sex being arrested as well,” Savadye contends. Harare provincial police spokesperson, Memory Pamire, said she was looking into the matter before she could comment. At law, it is illegal to solicit for sex in Zimbabwe.
Section 81 (2) of the Criminal Code reads in part: “Any person who publicly solicits another person for the purposes of prostitution shall be guilty of soliciting and liable to a fine not exceeding level five or imprisonment for a period not exceeding six months or both.”

Sexuality, HIV and prostitution have always been contentious subjects in the country. In May this year, a group of female sex workers, through their lawyer, Gift Mtisi of Musendekwa and Mtisi Legal Practitioners, approached the Constitutional Court challenging their conviction at the magistrates court on the basis that it was a violation of their constitutional rights.

MDC-T Bulawayo East Member of Parliament, Thabitha Khumalo, is known for championing the cause to legalise the world’s oldest profession. In 2011, she led a campaign to include the rights of “pleasure engineers” in the country’s Constitution. Khumalo was quoted saying: “It (prostitution) is here to stay and we need to bite the bullet. Pleasure engineering did not begin in Bulawayo or Zimbabwe. It all began in the Garden of Eden and one of those pleasure engineers was Eve.”

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