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Health Equity in Africa

Selling sex in a precarious economy: Increasing vulnerabilities for young women who sell sex in Zimbabwe

Selling sex in a precarious economy: Increasing vulnerabilities for young women who sell sex in Zimbabwe

Amidst deepening economic challenges and food insecurity projections in Zimbabwe, it is important not to lose sight of those already living on the margins. Our ongoing research amongst young women who sell sex (16-24 years) suggests that their circumstances are becoming increasingly precarious and their vulnerability more pronounced than ever before. Our research is revealing the growing phenomenon of increasingly younger girls and women selling sex who are more often than not the sole providers to children, younger siblings or elderly relatives and through selling sex are the hard line between survival or destitution. Or as one young woman told us: “I’m the father and I’m mother to these children; their clothes, food and general well-being is my sole responsibility. So if I stop going to work everything else stops too.”

So what does the worsening economic situation pose for these young women? Our research is highlighting that youthful age results in challenges in negotiating condom use with clients and that these young women are particularly vulnerable to violence and forced sex compare to their adult peers. In addition, the economies of selling sex mean that some clients will pay significantly more for unprotected sex than for protected encounters. Calculations based on financial need at household level are weighed up against risk to self, in a country with one of the highest HIV prevalence rates, but where the promise of *RTGS$50 will often outweigh consideration of personal risk.  While operating in very constrained circumstances, our research also suggests that these young women still retain, albeit limited, agency in negotiating price and use of protection.

The inflation of currency now threatens to topple even this precarious balance. For example, travelling on a taxi to a health clinic (most often for STI treatment) or work location has doubled, in some areas from RTGS$3 to RTGS$6. Rates for short time sexual encounters can range anywhere between RTGS$3-10 which means more clients will be required to meet rising costs. However, the knock-on effect of a worsening economy means that these young women’s clients are also being (relatively) negatively impacted and may be less willing or able to pay the going rate. These days, young women will accept RTGS$2 for “short time” – not even enough for a taxi ride to the health clinic – but she is hopeful there will be others. Clients may also promise to pay more for unprotected sex but this payment is not necessarily guaranteed. During this time of economic challenge, young women who sell sex in Zimbabwe are more vulnerable than ever before. As another participant shares: “Some clients will offer you $80 for unprotected sex, at the back of mind I will think that I charge $2 for short time. How many clients will I need for short time to get to $80? For this one time, I will get $80 as compared to sleeping with many clients to get that $80. So I will take the risk and do what the client wants.”

*RTGS$= Real Time Gross Transfer Settlement dollar, Zimbabwe’s new currency.

NOTE: This research forms part of the Linking Policy to Programming  project being undertaken in five countries aimed at strengthening legal and policy environments for reducing HIV Risk and improving Sexual and Reproductive Health (SRH) for young key populations in Southern Africa.

Samantha Chareka is a PhD student at HEARD

Dr Tamaryn Crankshaw is the Programme Leader for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights