Women forced to give sexual favours to survive

Date: January 1, 1970
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With her unkempt hair tucked into a woolen hat, a faded T-shirt, skirt and a pair of torn canvas shoes, Nokhuthula Tshuma* does not fit the stereotypical profile of a commercial sex worker. As an informal trader earning a living selling agricultural produce from rural areas to urban residents, it is difficult to link her to sex work and its inherent dangers.

Yet, the mother of three, like thousands of impoverished Zimbabwean women struggling to feed, clothe and educate their children in a hyperinflationary environment, is at great risk of infection. Each time they embark on a business trip, the women expose themselves to vulnerable situations.
As the Zimbabwean economy crumbles, shortages of basic goods have presented numerous opportunities for enterprising women to make money. The same shortages of goods and essential services such as transport coupled with endemic corruption mean the women traders have to operate according to business rules defined by men.
One such rule is to offer a “favour,” really a bribe, to secure scarce commodities and free passage by police officers.   For these impoverished and desperate women, the bribes take the form of offering "a little bit extra" to male service providers and suppliers in order to remain in business.  These extra favours are invariably sexual.
For the cash-strapped women, sex offers an easy and cheap, albeit risky, means of supporting their families. In return, they are able to secure scarce goods as well as discounts on transport and accommodation and their businesses flourish.
A few experiences gleaned from a cross section of informal Zimbabwean women traders illustrate the magnitude of the dilemma these women contend with in trying to meet economic needs and safeguarding their health.
Tshuma lives in the southern half of Zimbabwe in the coal-mining town of Hwange. Twice a month, she makes a 400 kilometer round trip to Lusulu in Binga district. Lusulu is a thriving agricultural area where Tshuma barters basic goods such as soap, sugar and salt, which have disappeared from shop shelves, with maize.  Normally she is away from home for a week. 
If she were to pay for all her transport, food and accommodation expenses when she is away from home, she would make very little profit. So to boost her profit margins, she pays using what is known as "bottom currency," to pay off bus crews to secure seats on overcrowded buses, truck drivers to ferry bags of maize back to Hwange, and lodge owners to discount her accommodation costs.
Beauty Phiri started selling dried fish six months ago soon after government’s clampdown on prices saw butchers’ refrigerators going empty. An astute entrepreneur, Phiri saw a viable business opportunity selling dried fish to protein-starved Bulawayo residents. She sources her fish fresh from the Zambezi River in Binga from both Zimbabwean and Zambian fishermen.  
She points out that it did not take her long to figure out that she had to sleep with the fishermen for her to get in order to meet her requirements quickly.   Women fishmongers openly admit that fishermen prefer to deal with "generous women."
On the extreme end of the age scale are poor girl pupils in remote rural schools, such as Lusulu High School.   Pupils walk an average of 20 kilometers to get to school from their homes, so many become “bush borders.” Bush boarding is an informal set-up where pupils build their own huts and have to find their own food and other basic requirements.
Many pupils come from poor families who are unable to send regular supplies of cash and food to the borders. In desperation, female students resort to illicit affairs with teachers, police officers and other rich villagers. Statistics from Lusulu indicate that annually, an average of 50 female students drop out of school after falling pregnant.
Thanks to HIV and AIDS awareness campaigns, most women who find themselves in such situations are aware of the inherent dangers of their survival tactics. The women know that HIV and AIDS have reduced the life expectancy of women in the country to 34 years, and that the pandemic is decimating families and drastically reducing mortality rates. 
The sad reality though, is that the poverty forces these women to engage in risky behaviour in order to survive anyways. Some women still are not making the connection between granting sexual favours and the increased risk of infection.
Another worrying fact is that when women travel a lot, their partners are likely to turn to mistresses called “small houses” in Zimbabwe, during their absence.  These "small house" occupants in turn often have numerous partners in an attempt to balance their ever-increasing monthly expenses with their incomes.
These bleak scenarios aptly portray how Zimbabwe’s economic meltdown, characterised by hyperinflation now at almost 15 000 percent, is fuelling the vulnerability of women to HIV infection and erasing the gains of concerted HIV and AIDS awareness and behaviour change campaigns.   The black market, a phenomenon triggered by acute shortages of basic goods and services, is forcing desperate women to forget lessons learnt from these campaigns.
The instinct to meet basic needs has erased survival skills painstakingly acquired over the years. Each time the Zimbabwe dollar tumbles, women’s survival chances take a corresponding knock, as it means more sexual favours to seal deals with men, who by virtue of their jobs or connections are able to make or break women’s survival attempts.
Even more disheartening is the realisation that efforts to break the vicious circle will come to nought until the economic free fall stops.
Miriam Madziwa is a freelance journalist based in Zimbabwe. This article is part of a series produced by the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service for the Sixteen Days of Activism on Gender Violence.

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