Being A Sex Worker Under Zimbabwe’s COVID-19 Induced Lockdwon

ACCORDING to Zimbabwe’s law, Prostitution is not a crime. However, loitering for the purposes of soliciting for sex is regarded a criminal offense. What is also criminalised is the act of offering one’s services in a public place.

By Michael Gwarisa

In as much as the law provides some form of relief to sex workers, it however makes it difficult for them to operate since majority of their clients frequent public spots such as roads, intersections, clubs etc and for them to get business, they need to be available physically  to get noticed and probably strike deals.

The Coronavirus pandemic has made it difficult for sex workers to conduct their trade owing restrictive measures that have been brought about by the Lockdowns as governments attempt to halt the spread of the disease.

Zimbabwe started observing its lockdown on March 30, 2020 and since then, many livelihoods and income generating ventures have been disrupted. For sex workers whose sole survival thrives on human traffic and gatherings, their situation is now pathetic.

So dire is the situation that despite the risks the COVID-19 poses, Sex Workers have to brave up and do the unthinkable just to at least bring food on their tables even if it means defying the lockdown regulations or offer free sexual services to members of security forces just to get a green pass to operate.

For Sibonile Kafaza (41) as Sex Worker in Harare, the going has been tough for her and her peers as they have to choose between staying indoors and die of hunger or go out, operate and risk arrest. Sibonile is a member of the Women Against All forms of Discrimination (WAAD) an orgnisation which fights for rights of sex workers.

She narrates how as a Sex Worker (SW), she has devised various strategies of servicing her clients under the prevailing lockdown restrictions.

My permanent clients are coming to my house to get sexual services. They usually come at night. However, for someone like me who rents a one roomed apartment with my kids, I have to go out and service my client in the bush or just behind the house.

“At times, my kids ask me where I will be going at night but i have to lie.  At times I have to pretend like I am going to fetch water since there is a water crisis these days.  I have to take an empty bucket with me just to deceive my kids,” said Kafaza.

Due to the strict COVID-19 measures, police and the military have been deployed to enforce compliance and in most cases individuals suffer physical abuse at the hands of members of the security forces. Sex Workers have not been spared this abuse and in most cases they have to pay in kind to avoid imprisonment or abuse.

“As you are aware, lodges have been closed under the current lockdown restrictions. We are using cars and bushes as our new love nests. However, soldiers and members of the police force are also patrolling the streets to check if people are complying with the lockdown.

“As Sex Workers, we are now working in fear of members of the security forces. We have to juggle between working to get money and risk being beaten by the police and soldiers. Many a times, when we get arrested, the officers ask us to choose between going behind bars and offering them free sex.”

She added that in most cases they have unprotected intercourse with the officers since everything would have happened so fast. Sibonile also said accessing basic Sexual and Reproductive Health (SRH) was a struggle at the beginning of the lockdown due to the tight restrictions on movement.

“When the lockdown started, it was very difficult for us to access Antiretroviral (ARV) drugs or even Pre-Exposure Prophylaxes (PrEP). Accessing health institution was a challenge since we didn’t have exemption letters that would see us get past police check points.

“The only forms of exemption letter we could produce at checkpoints were the books we use when collecting our ARVs from health institutions. However, this saw us surrendering some of our rights to privacy and confidentiality as we were forced to disclose our HIV status to the police and soldiers since they said they didn’t know what the books were meant for.

“In most cases, the officers would pretend like they don’t know what the books are meant for and they would make us shout until everybody hears. Getting back on the bus after such an embarrassing act was very challenging.” Said Siboile.

The absence of basic sanitizers and Personnel Protective Clothing (PPE) for Sex Workers also exposes them to the risk of COVID-19 infection.

“We are also having a challenge of having sexual encounters with our clients during this pandemic. We are exposed to the COVID-19 juts like anybody else and I would say we at greater risk since we sleep with several people within a short space of time.”

However, the Population Services International (PSI) managed to organize the distribution of critical medications such as PrEP, ARVs, Condoms and Lubricants at the homesteads of most sex workers.

“I just want to thank the PSI who listened to our plea for basic instruments and equipment we use during the sex trade. They are now distributing condoms, lubricants, ARVs,  PrEP and other essential medications right at our doorstep.

“Even though I and most of my colleagues are on PrEP we are having challenges in accessing contraceptives and since some of our clients prefer unprotected sex, they end up walking away with their money because we would have refused to offer them unprotected sex for fear of falling pregnant.”

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