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Tackling young sex workers menace

20 Jun 2017 at 05:50hrs | Views
THE blow of a horn disrupts the quietness of the small township of Ngundu in Masvingo Province, rumbling across the fast gathering dusk.

Dressed in tight-fitting body revealing clothes, women, mostly teenagers who have been milling around an open market space for almost three hours start screaming in excitement as they race towards the entrance of a truck port.

As the truck comes into sight one teenager shouts out the name of her friend. The friend, it later emerges, is the partner of the driver.

More and more trucks descend on the area and in no time the small dusty parking bay is congested. An air of excitement suddenly fills the atmosphere.

Ngundu Business Centre, about 110km south of Masvingo along the busy Beitbridge-Chirundu highway is usually quiet and passive during the day, but curtly turns into an ugly and infamous place for high levels of teenage prostitution at the approach of dusk.

Girls, some as young as 13 years have descended on the area and virtually turned it into a red-light district.

In fact, the area has been turned into a paedophile's paradise where older men, especially truck drivers prey on vulnerable teenage girls to quench their insatiable sexual appetite.

A Chronicle news crew went out to investigate the after-hours activities of truckers and unearthed startling revelations of how these long distance drivers exploit school children and teenage sex workers.

It took less effort to get Maggie (not her real name), who was impatiently awaiting the arrival of her regular client to blurt out the complexities associated with highway prostitution.

"It's a long story. I came here so that I could make a living from these drivers, but sadly some of these men exploit young girls like us," she says coyly.

Maggie dropped out of school last year at the age of 13 while she was doing Form One.

"I dropped out of school after I completed Grade Seven and prostitution has become a way of life for me," she said as she up-ended a brown Castle Lager bottle with its frothy golden liquid gushing down her throat.

"In fact, it all started when my peers lured me into prostitution as a part time job to raise extra money for lunch and books and before I knew it I was pregnant," she said.

Maggie, who is now 14, was impregnated by a truck driver who had promised to marry her after school.

"He promised to marry me after school and at first I insisted on protected sex until one night he lured me into drinking beer and we ended up having unprotected sex," she said.

The truck driver disappeared after impregnating the girl and never communicated with her again.

"In fact, all his phones are no longer available. I suspect he changed numbers because of my pregnancy. I'm now forced to continue in this business to fend for my baby who is six months old now," said Maggie

Underlying all these assertions, it became apparent that there was a deep sense of guilt in her voice.

A few metres away from the truck port is a nightclub. Some young girls are dancing to the blurring rhumba music.

Nomsa (not her real name) looks remarkably similar to the other girls she is with; with pouting lips and mournful eyes in ridiculous fashion.

She has slender legs and plaited hair. There is a look of sullen boredom in her eyes as she fidgets with the edges of her tight black mini-skirt.

An old man with a balding head walks into the nightclub scratching his nose and looking at them like goats at an auction.

He paces up and down in front of the young girls before he stops in front of Nomsa. Minutes later, the two leave the nightclub before Nomsa steers the old man into a nearby dingy brothel.

Nomsa emerges about 20 minutes later.

"That was my first catch for the day and he offered me $1 for a short stint," she said.

Sadly, the remuneration is poor and the work is mind numbing, risky and exhausting. For spending the night with one man, she gets a paltry $5.

Nomsa says she is forced to have sex with five or six men per night to raise enough money for rent, food and clothes.

"On nights like this one, with so many men, I'm just too tired to carry on. So I have a shot of mbanje and it gives me a boost," she said.

Why do these girls carry on?

One reason is that their families are mostly poor. They are forced into prostitution as the best way to support their families back home.

The problem of teenage prostitution is a problem of international proportions.

The Chronicle also established that pupils in schools along the busy highway have also been caught up in the risky but booming sex trade, which has taken the area by storm.

A teacher who declined to be named said some children walking long distances to school are offered lifts by these cunning truckers in return for sex. Some of these school girls rent rooms in the township and other surrounding homes.

"They have all the freedom to engage in casual sex with truckers for extra money. Sadly, some have dropped out of school after falling pregnant. We have on many occasions seen these children in school uniform disembarking from trucks in the early hours of the morning," said the teacher.

The Zimbabwe National Council for the Welfare of Children programme manager Mr Maxim Murungweni whose organisation carried out a study between 2015 and 2016, said long distance truck drivers plying routes along the Beitbridge-Chirundu highway are fuelling child prostitution by targeting school children and teenage sex workers.

"The 16 to 18-year-olds are recent school leavers. In a few years, they'll be the productive ages. Just imagine if they were your children. They're not in this trade because they're willing. The family system is facing challenges due to high divorce rates and this affects children. It's shocking. They pay for sex with an empty bottle of Coke in Beitbridge and Ngundu. We might be happy that HIV infection rates are decreasing, but in the hotpots, the rates are actually increasing," he said.

About 2,2 percent of the victims were under the age of 15 years when the study was carried out between 2015 and 2016. It polled about 300 girls, who chronicled tales of horrific gender-based violence in the commercial sex hotspots.

Mr Murungweni said at least 23 percent had taken refuge in commercial sex after being orphaned, while the rest were influenced by friends, had fled gender-based violence from their home or had been recruited by thriving commercial sex syndicates that control 5,5 percent of the trade.

"They see this as an income generating project because of the economic problems that we're going through and some of their parents are ill. They're forced to take care of their families and some of them are attending school and involved in sex work," he said.

Mr Murungweni said the study revealed that at Ngundu Growth Point, there was war between old and young sex workers to the extent that the old ones ended up buying school uniforms (to disguise themselves as teenagers)," said Mr Murungweni.

National Aids Council director for monitoring and evaluation, Mr Amon Mpofu said the issue of young sex workers needed a strategic approach as it was fast becoming a crisis.

"We need to critically find a solution to this otherwise the gains made so far in the fight against HIV could mean nothing," he said.

With the Aids pandemic taking its horrendous toll on human life, it can only be frightening to imagine what the future holds for these active players, not only in Ngundu, but throughout the country and beyond.

The International Labour Organisation in 2010 launched a project on Economic Empowerment and HIV Vulnerability Reduction along Transport Corridors in Southern Africa in a bid to tackle HIV/Aids through empowering sex workers so that they start self income generating projects.

The project seeks to respond to the HIV/Aids pandemic through economic empowerment in the transport sector through a strategic approach of mobilising co-operatives and community based organisations.

ILO says the major thrust of the programme is to mobilise the tripartite constituents and other strategic partners to contribute to the reduction of HIV infections and mitigation of the impact of Aids through sustainable prevention, improved livelihood strategies, access to care and support structures and initiatives involving affected grassroots communities and transport sector workers and their families.

The programme seeks to addresses the needs and vulnerabilities of workers in the informal economy who do not have access to coping mechanisms to mitigate the impact of the disease, such as lack of access to social protection and income.

Economic empowerment was a way to increase opportunities and therefore economic resilience of the most vulnerable populations and workers with high risk of exposure to HIV infections.

However, these efforts by the ILO to improve the lives of sex workers face several challenges because of the unavailability of funding.

Despite the vast challenges, ILO's national co-ordinator on Economic Empowerment and HIV Vulnerability Reduction Mr Colly Masuku said the organisation will intensify the war against prostitution through economic empowerment.

He said plans were at an advanced stage to establish a fund to assist the sex workers.

"The fund, called The Corridor Economic Empowerment Innovative Fund, once established seeks to stimulate opportunities through promoting decent work for members of support structures along selected transport corridors. This is in order to provide viable coping strategies to vulnerable groups by sowing seeds and nurturing a culture of self resilience, entrepreneurship and enterprise development," said Mr Masuku.

He said this will in turn create a high awareness of the existence of less risky survival alternatives among infected and affected households and workers alike.

Mr Masuku said the fund system and procedures would also minimise lending risks and ensure the potential growth of the fund.

He said plans were at an advanced stage to set up such funds to economically empower disadvantaged groups.

Chirundu Border Post located on the banks of the Zambezi River in Mashonaland West Province is the second busiest border after Beitbridge and handles more than 6 000 trucks per month.

The ILO said it had also targeted this area as it is a high risk for HIV/Aids.

The ILO says it seeks to support programmes to respond to the HIV and Aids epidemic in the world of work. Since 2003 the ILO has been running programmes focusing on HIV/Aids prevention impact mitigation in the Transport Sector in Zimbabwe with support from the Swedish International Development Agency.

The programme, which is now in its third phase, has contributed significantly to the decline of HIV/Aids prevention across the country.

Source - chronicle
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