Lockdown Rules Haunt S_ex Workers
3 June 2021
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By A Correspondent- It is winter and the howling wind makes it difficult to navigate the freezing yet frosty terrain.

It is just getting dark and it is that time of the day when most people are on their way back home from their various workplaces.

However, the young women line up the street and they are clearly visible in their skimpy dressing whenever they are flashed by a car that is passing by.

*Doren Maseko* is one of the dozens of young women who journeys every day from Chitungwiza, a town 27 kilometres away from the capital city of Zimbabwe to her workplace, PaJongwe in Hatfield, Harare where she plies her trade starting from around 6pm into the dead of the night.

A young woman who refused to disclose her real age preferring to reveal that she was in her late 20s, Maseko is a sex worker.

She told Zimeye that business is sometimes brisk just after sunset as she gets clients who will be coming from work.

“Remember, our clients are the same people who go to work and some may pick you up just after work for an all night service or just a quick one. The earlier you come to work the better.”

Quizzed on what happens to her two children at home while she is away, she said:

“I normally do not go back home with clients because I leave my children with a fellow tenant who babysits my children until they sleep making sure that they have eaten dinner and they have locked their doors for the night.”

She sounds convincing when claiming that her children are in safe hands.

“The woman who babysits my children is a good woman and she also has kids of her own. Besides, my children are not that young. I had my first in my teens and they are well over 10years,” she said.

Responding to why she chose to “sell her body” at Pajongwe, Maseko said she had overheard a colleague saying that the clients here paid better money.

She had discovered that it was true, but the lockdown had changed it all.

“The lockdown affected and killed our business. We had no customers because remember only essential service providers were allowed to move around.”

Maseko revealed that as a sex worker, she had tried all avenues to solicit and lure customers during the lockdown, but all her efforts were in vain.

“I tried advertising online but the men were not forthcoming. There is stiff competition online and very few would make the trip to Chitungwiza just for you. It is far from the elitist clients.”

On a good day, she says she makes between US$15 to US40.

“But sometimes, you even struggle to get US$5 and this is when I have to just trade my body for somewhere to sleep and wait for the morning so that I can get transport to go back home.”

She complained of abuse at the hands of law enforcement agents especially police officers.

“The curfew is affecting how we work. Police officers solicit for bribes for us to be able to work after 10pm.”

She alleged that “after catching you for soliciting for sex, they in turn solicit for sex from you.”

“In most instances we end up complying and sleeping with them in exchange for freedom. Some even go to the extent of requesting for unprotected sex.”

Raped

Added another young lady who identified herself as Patience dressed in a bum short but visibly shivering:

“They also take away our money. You have to bribe your way out, US$2 to $5 it depends on your negotiating skills.”

Patience however says this is not the only problem.

She tells ZimEye that sex workers are also prone to violent clients.

“Thieves are a nuisance and some of the clients want their money back after they finish having sex with you. Some shout and beat you up saying they did not get value for their money.”

She revealed that in worst instances, sex workers are raped.

“It is difficult to report the rape because already you would have violated the lockdown regulations and so you have no option but to deal with it on your own or it back fires.”

She revealed that there are instances when she has been gang raped after a client negotiates for sex alone only to shift goalposts and invite his colleagues for a “free ride”.

“Only one person negotiates for sex but when you reach the client’s home, you will find 4 or so others and they take turns to sleep with you. Its horror.”

Zimbabwe’s Constitutional Court in 2015 made a landmark ruling and barred police from arresting women out on the streets on prostitution charges.

However, police spokesperson Paul Nyathi is on record saying they are not above the law and they can be picked up for violating lockdown rules just like anyone else.

Nyathi revealed that sex workers were among the close to 60,000 people arrested since April for violating the lockdown regulations.

Protection

Rights activists argue that while the landmark ruling makes sex workers’ operational environment better than before, legalizing sex work would protect them and their clients from HIV and abuse.

While the de- criminalisation of sex work has seen them operate freely on the streets, the intense stigma attached to sex work shapes interactions between sex workers and their clients, family, fellow community members, and societal structures such as the police and social services, says Claris Madhuku, a human rights activist who doubles as head of the Platform for Youth Development.

Madhuku argues that the impact of violence and related human rights abuses on the lives of sex workers, and how they have responded to these conditions confirms their experiences of unlawful arrests and detention, violence, extortion, vilification and exclusion within society.

“Sex work tends to be more aligned to the moral standing of an individual but it has adverse effects on the physical, mental and social wellbeing of this population. Some of them end up resorting to violence, abortions and all sorts of social ills because they are not accepted in society.”

The Proposed provisions for the revised SADC Protocol on Gender and Development Part 2: Constitutional and Legal Rights Article 4: 1, states that State Parties shall by 2030 enshrine gender equality and equity in their Constitutions and ensure that these rights are not compromised by any provisions, laws or practices.

“States Parties shall implement legislative and other measures to eliminate all practices which negatively affect the fundamental rights of women, men, girls and boys, such as their right to life, health, dignity, education and physical integrity.”

Reservoirs of STIs

Accordingly, member countries are expected to “strengthen all accountability systems and mechanisms to ensure that women are empowered to claim their rights and have access to redress and remedies”.

Reads article 2(a): “States Parties shall enact and enforce legislative and other measures to ensure equal access to justice and protection before the law.”

Says another sex worker only identified as Trish:

“There is so much discrimination in communities and even within health institutions where we are viewed and treated as reservoirs of sexually transmitted infections. Besides the clients beating you up when a condom bursts, some clients even remove the condom during sex so that they can have it raw arguing that because I am a prostitute, I have nothing to lose. Negotiating for safe sex is a challenge.

 She added:

“It is also expensive to seek medical treatment and covid-19 pandemic has not made it any easier. I have heard that they require a covid-19 certificate at the clinic for them to treat you. Who affords that? I will drink traditional medicines “guchu” to clear all infections.”

Gender and women’s rights expert who is also the Zimbabwe Gender Commission chief executive officer Virginia Muwanigwa says human rights including access to quality health care services are conferred by international and national instruments by virtue of one being human.

“Human rights exist in constitutional principles and need to be made legal entitlements by the state through laws, policies. On the other hand, legal rights provide penalties in the event of violations while enabling one to demand for their rights in practice.” 

According to the Beijing Plus 5 Review Report, states must strive to effectively address multiple or intersecting forms of discrimination through examining the differential impact of discrimination on different groups of women and girls across all policy areas, and ensure the application of appropriate responses in laws and policies.

Recommendations by the report calls for the strengthening of the legal protection mechanisms and improved responsiveness of public services.

The sex workers however, tell a different story.

“We have very limited resources or possibilities to challenge perpetrators, or to seek justice and legal compensation,” said Patience.

The sex workers’ stories of their everyday lives, social interactions and relationships portray narratives of resilience and resistance. They confirm that each has devised their own unique individualised survival strategies and informal forms of support.

Taking into account the stigmatised nature of their profession which in most instances undermines activities of collective action, it remains to be seen if the second republic will come up with unified actions that help sex workers counter the risks in their environment and mobilise against the violations of their fundamental human rights.