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Food shortages push young girls into prostitution

The persistent food shortages have pushed young girls into prostitution, selling their bodies in exchange for groceries.
Rodrick Mukumbira

With great uneasiness surrounding an aroma of youth, Thandiwe walks into the dazzle of the headlights of an approaching car. The lights reveal a semi-nude, very young girl whose buttocks are covered by a flimsy cloth, with several others behind her.

She darts across the road to the car that has just stopped, negotiates with the driver, and gets in. With her, the car disappears into the evening hustle and
bustle of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second largest city.

Thandiwe is one of the hundreds of young girls aged between 12 and 17 who have taken to the bars and hotels to become front-runners of the latest inspirations in the world's oldest profession to trade sex for groceries.

As Zimbabwe's economic meltdown continues and getting hard cash becomes a miracle, the little girls, who are now out-pacing their elder counterparts off
the streets, have devised the new system of payment "to beat the cash shortage among customers".

Social commentators view the proliferation of young girls bartering their bodies for food and groceries as a sign that the ability of families to provide love and care have been stretched beyond limit.

"Pushed out of their families by worsening hunger and the realisation that their parents can no longer afford to put the next meal together, the new generation of commercial sex workers have 'colonised' every nightspot, and linger around major hotels in search of customers," says Themba Mguni, a pastor with
a Pentecostal church whose organisation is trying to generate interest in the plight of child commercial sex workers.

He, however, says efforts from his church are hampered by lack of commitment from government and most non-governmental organisations.

As Mguni's grouping attempts to spark debate in child prostitution, Thandiwe and her friends are content with their imposed profession. They argue that
groceries have become the most popular method of payment because "the money ends up buying food after all."

As Thandiwe puts it, the desperate search for food is the major factor that drives the young girls into pubs frequented by the few remaining affluent persons in
the city.

Like all major urban centres in Zimbabwe, Bulawayo has been hard hit by a worsening food shortage. By the end of August, the city's directorate of public health services had reported about 80 hunger-related deaths.

The city's figures of malnutrition started ballooning in April 2003 when some UN agencies briefly withdrew relief assistance after the government announced that
most parts of the country had received a good harvest resulting from Cyclone Eline-induced rains that had hit the country in March.

But Bulawayo is the capital of Matebeleland, a province where the Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) government has been accused
of withholding food aid because the province voted for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in general and presidential elections in 2000 and 2004 respectively.

The new generation of commercial sex workers patrolling the streets of Bulawayo are thus, adolescent victims of food shortages who have escaped the hunger befalling their villages around the city. The girls, who operate in small gangs of up to 10, say they do not care who they sleep with as long as they
get food on their tables.

But there is one thing the young queens of the night show concern about - the AIDS virus. So conscious are they for the need for protection that each one carries a handbag full of condoms to give to customers who may not have brought their own.

"Yes, survival is tough, but I resorted to this business to survive, not to die. I consider as dangerous any client who wants services without a condom. So I carry my own and any man who refuses to wear them should take their money or groceries and leave. It is never a deal without condoms," says Jacqueline (not her real name).

She concedes, however, that there are a number of girls who find themselves engaging in unprotected sex, mostly with foreign men and black market cash dealers, who have also quietly taken control of the city's underworld.

Says Jacqueline: "Local men are conscious of the AIDS threat. But black market dealers, always loaded with US dollars, have enticed a number of girls into having unprotected sex for fees that are a bit higher than what others can offer."

The advent of young commercial sex workers is a cause of major concern among anti-AIDS activists, who agree that most of their programmes are not designed to
address the risks of young people being caught in the web of prostitution.

Linda Ncube, an advocacy officer with one of the various anti-HIV/AIDS organisations, Matebeleland AIDS Council (MAC) says such organisations' main weakness in mitigating problems related to teenage sexual activity is that they only work through schools' and suburban AIDS action clubs. Most of these clubs are being administered under the New Start AIDS counselling and testing services

"We are, however, aware that the people who are already in the commercial sex business are not members of any group, since they are mostly school drop-outs.
Because of the nature of their activities, they cannot be seen during the day like most teenagers," says Ncube.

The government-run National AIDS Council (NAC) has also failed to come up with programmes for dealing with the problem of teenage prostitution, partly
because of lack of funds.

As Thandiwe puts it, "the immediate question is whether I get the food or money to buy it. What follows will be dealt with when it comes. But do I have a choice?"

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