IT IS midnight at a shopping centre in Hopley, a poor suburb east of Harare. Masceline, an orphaned 15-year-old, stands in the darkness. Her aim is to find a client. But she also wants to avoid getting beaten up by older prostitutes who resent the competition she represents.
Zimbabwe’s Constitutional Court ruled in 2015 that the police could not arrest women for prostitution. At first, sex workers cheered. No more would they be dragged to police stations and shaken down for bribes to avoid six-month jail terms. It was a relief, too, for the many other women whom the cops used to arrest just for walking alone at night or drinking in a pub.
Yet there was a catch. Tambudzai Mikorasi, a 40-year-old sex worker, says she may have celebrated too early. Now that the oldest profession has been decriminalised, a flood of young women and girls are joining it and driving down prices. (Jobs of any kind are scarce thanks to Robert Mugabe’s disastrous management of the economy.)
Some veterans have responded by hiring thugs to protect their turf. In return, the men can have sex whenever they want. “We have no option,” says Ms Mikorasi, her muscles flexing as she pulls down her miniskirt. “It has never been this bad. These little girls are pushing us out of business.” Malaika Chatyoka, a 37-year-old, complains that the fee she can charge has slumped from $10 for 30 minutes to as little as $2 on some nights. The price for a full night is down to $10, one fifth of what she used to charge.
Police raids used to scare away competitors. “Only the brave remained on the streets. Now it’s free-for-all,” says 25-year-old Sazini Ngwenya from Bulawayo. She adds that without the police paying attention there has been an increase in robberies and rape.
Faced with a slumping economy Zimbabweans are so desperate that, for many, even cut-price sex work seems like the least-bad option. “With no education, faced with the responsibility to fend for their siblings and/or their own children, many girls and young women are being forced to sell sex for survival,” laments Talent Jumo, a director of the Katswe Sistahood, a charity. With no sign of an economic recovery, many more girls could be forced onto the streets, she says.
For Masceline, the need to put food on the table for her family means she will continue renting out her body. “Everything I face here is better than going hungry or watching my baby sister drop out of school,” she says hurriedly, as a potential client approaches.
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