Child prostitution surges in farming communities
Patrick Chitumba, Feature
For 13-year-old Mercy Tawenga (not her real name), life changed when she lost her parents and ended up staying with a distant relative in the Durlstone farming area of Macheke, Murehwa District, in Mashonaland East Province.
Mercy says she is now three months pregnant after she was forced into prostitution, becoming one of the child prostitutes who frequent mostly makeshift or backyard bars in Macheke.
This is not a unique case for this area, but across the country where young girls are forced into prostitution by circumstances which include loss of parents and poverty.
While the two reasons mentioned above are not tickets or stamp of approval for the girl child, who should be in school and enjoying the love of parents in the comfort of their homes, it is now common cause that there is a surge in child prostitution, forced or otherwise across the country from mining areas, farms, growth points, to towns and cities.
But at the end of it all, adolescent pregnancy has huge psycho-social, economic and health consequences, including emotional stress, low self-esteem, dropping out of school, expulsion from school, stigmatisation of single mothers, forced marriage, promiscuity, abandonment, unsafe abortions, suicide, poverty and negative health outcomes for both the mother and baby.
In this case, Mercy a Grade Six drop out, is now HIV positive at that tender age, and is one of the many people who came from the farming communities around Durlstone Primary School in Macheke for National Aids Council (NAC) HIV intervention programmes.
The programmes target specific key-population groups, among them sex workers, truck drivers, artisanal miners, adolescent girls and young women.
From this school, the nearest clinic is 15 kilometres away. Nhowe Mission is 15 to 20km away, a distance that also forces members of the community to think twice about seeking health care.
“My parents died when I was about 11 years old,” said Mercy. “They were farm workers and after their burial I moved in with one of our distant relatives at the farm. The living conditions were so bad that I opted to join some young girls in prostitution rather than live with this relative who didn’t care about me.
“To me, prostitution was better because I could make my own money, though little, but I could decide for myself what to eat and to wear and not to rely on someone else.”
Mercy said some clients would demand unprotected sex and she would accept and charge an extra amount for the high risk she got herself into.
The next thing she found out she was pregnant and HIV positive.
“I accepted my status and have even joined a Sister-to-Sister community group started by the NAC to find support and comfort,” said Mercy. “However, what I know is that what is done is done, and the only thing I can do is adopt a positive mind and start eating and living a healthy life.
“Right now I don’t know the status of my baby. I will only get to know after giving birth.”
Mercy said there was an acute shortage of medication, which includes STI drugs — a development that results in recurrence of infections among ladies of the night.
According to latest NAC statistics, Mashonaland East Province has a high prevalence rate; as high as 38 percent, especially among farming communities in which Mercy and thousands of other girls live.
“We have noted that there is high prevalence rate in farming communities in Mashonaland East Province,” said NAC provincial manager for Mashonaland East, Dr Wilfred Dube. “Studies have shown that a woman can divorce her husband and move into the house next door. And that is a common trend.
“At the same time they interchange partners without even knowing their HIV status. The rate is even as high as 38 percent as compared to key populations such as in sex workers.”
Dr Dube said one of the challenges bedevilling HIV intervention programmes was the recurrence of STIs due to shortages of drugs in the province.
“The quality of STIs treatment is not up to scratch,” he said. “Most clinics in marginalised areas do not have adequate drugs to cure STIs. Due to drug shortages, there can be recurrences of STIs. So, the greatest challenge is STI management.”
And in response to HIV and Aids, Dr Dube said NAC was working in partnership with the Ministry of Health and Child Care and partners to help bring HIV services to marginalised communities, including farming areas.
NAC, he said, had intensified the presence of night clinics in Murehwa, Mutoko, Nyamapanda Border Post, Makaha, Mudzi and in artisanal mining communities.
The night clinics, he said, were manned by nurses with specialised training in handling key populations such as truck drivers.
“The night clinics are at the usual Government clinics, but open at night and are manned by trained nurses, who can handle ladies of the night, children as young as 12 involved in prostitution or are pregnant,” said Dr Dube.
“These clinics are now very popular in the province.”
NAC interventions in response to HIV and Aids among adolescents have also seen the setting up of Sister-to-Sister community groups across the country.
Such groups are aimed at strengthening protection of girls, enforcing constitutional and legal provisions on child protection and eliminate child marriage and prevent gender-based violence (GBV), among other goals.
Ms Rutendo Kupemba, a youth officer and mentor for Sister-to-Sister in Murombedzi District, said the programme empowered girls to make correct financial and healthcare decisions.
“We are targeting girls between 10 and 24 years where we offer them advice on matters of reproductive health,” she said.
“When we have cases like GBV, we refer to the police. We work with elders in the community in our look out for the girl child.”
Another youth officer and mentor is Ms Exhibit Mashungu from Goromonzi District, who said they have covered 1 000 girls so far in 10 wards.
According to Zimbabwe National Adolescent Fertility Study, adolescent pregnancy severely curtails girls and young women’s opportunities, and hinders their ability to reach full potential.
“Early sexual debut and sexual abuse of female adolescents increase the girls’ risk to unintended pregnancies, HIV and STIs, and psycho-social challenges in their lives,” said Ms Mashungu.
“The most cited reasons for first pregnancy among female adolescents aged 15-19 were unplanned (48percent), wanted a child (45 percent), did not think they would fall pregnant (23 percent), early marriage (19 percent), did not know about condom use/contraceptives (10 percent), and sexual violence/abuse/rape (8 percent),” reads the study.
“Cultural and religious practices also play a strong role in driving adolescent pregnancy, and sacrifice lives of female adolescents at the “altar” of religion and tradition. Some of the cultural practices that put adolescents at risk of pregnancy are child/early marriage, traditional cleansing, wife pledging and HIV cleansing.”