By Bridget Sibanda
IT is a show that would make the devil smile.
Beautiful young ladies who would ent
er without any debate if looks and dressing were a passport to heaven prowl Tropicana Club in the capital city of Zimbabwe.
Their mission is only complete when they have cash in their pockets.
Clad in skimpy outfits, one would be forgiven for believing this to be a fashion show. The majority wear bouncy body tops and flesh-hugging hipster jeans, while others put on transparent blouses.
It’s a tight contest.
Scratch the surface of this façade and you discover that below is a female student trying to fight above her weight to attract customers in the smoke-filled nightclub.
It’s hard to pick one as the best but it’s easy to tell that these are business-minded people.
Shimmy-shammying their lower backsides in suggestive movements or intermittently freshening their make-up, they chatter as if absent-mindedly about nothing in particular.
Discuss the price of sex and faces suddenly light up.
This is the dilemma of college students who engage in the oldest profession of hawking sex to meet or augment inadequate financial grants at tertiary institutions.
It takes more than just a hard look to convince one that these are hard-pressed students the way they dress.
Chipo Machenjedza, a second year human resources student at the University of Zimbabwe, whose parents perished in a car accident in 2000, explained how she got entrapped in commercial sex.
“I came to Harare three years ago without any intention of joining prostitution.”
Chipo says her uncle adopted her and two of her siblings, sending them all to school.
“I passed ‘A’ level and secured a place at UZ,” she explains.
But tragedy struck again for Chipo.
“Last year my uncle died after a short illness and my aunt could not afford the fees for the three of us as well as for her own children because she is unemployed,” Chipo says.
“Naturally I risked dropping out of college until a friend at college introduced me to this profession.”
Chipo says she finds it worth the risk since she is able to pay her fees and those of her two brothers.
But she admits her conscience is permanently in turmoil.
“Prostitution is a disreputable profession. But what else could I do when I was on the verge of starvation and dropping out of college?” Chipo asked. “And business is not bad at all,” she adds.
Chipo reveals that most of her clients are businessmen.
“Businessmen are good clients because they pay handsomely for services. At times they give me more than I would have charged. Besides they take us to expensive hotels for the night.”
She stops and takes a long sip from a bottle of beer.
“Life is difficult for us and the loans that government gives us at college are meaningless. The money is not enough to sustain one for a month. So we have to find alternative sources,” Chipo said.
Other female students in similar predicaments interviewed at the UZ said men pay “huge amounts of money for unprotected sex”.
Both male and female students at tertiary institutions are reportedly involved in transactional sex for luxury goods.
“It is common knowledge that students live on shoestring budgets and are likely to be tempted by any monetary inducements from older lovers,” said Tatenda Muloyi, a student at Harare Polytechnic.
A new phenomenon, known in the students’ language as the “slave trade syndrome” has also arisen.
Male students are used as “procurers” of female partners for older men in return for money, tickets to live shows or nightclubs, as well as food.
And because most universities and colleges cannot provide accommodation for all students, many have to rent accommodation in nearby working-class suburbs.
A room costs between $2 million and $3 million a month and often four students are forced to share a room at $2 million each.
Female students have resorted to cohabitation with older men who rent them a flat or a house in return for sex.
Karen Takaro (22), a business studies student from Midlands State University, says she needs about $2,5 million for rent a month, money for food and transport from town to college every day.
She says her parents cannot afford to pay all this plus tuition fees.
“Last semester we paid $28 million and next semester I’m told we will be paying about $120 million.”
Karen openly admits: “To help myself I engaged in prostitution so that I supplement the grants we are given at school. For a two-hour session I charge $2 million and for the whole night I need about $6 million.”
Despite the great risk of contracting the HIV virus, the students are prepared to engage in unprotected sex when clients insist.
The number of girls who are engaged in prostitution is increasing, reflecting the deepening economic and social crisis gripping Zimbabwe since 2000.
Recently concerned parents met at Stodart Hall in Harare for public discussion on the rising cost of education in Zimbabwe and its implications on national development. Speakers agreed that government had lost its moral legitimacy by increasing tuition fees to levels that prohibit a majority of students from attaining professional academic education, a reversal of a fundamental tool for development.
In a report presented to parliament recently, the portfolio committee on Education, Sport and Culture chaired by MDC legislator for Seke, Fidelis Mhashu, noted that a number of both female and male students had quit their studies over the past few months because they could no longer afford to pay their fees.
The committee said 34 students had dropped out of their studies at Midlands State University as they could no longer afford the fees.
Economic hardships brought about by the recent increase in tuition fees at state universities and colleges have driven female students into prostitution to make ends meet, the committee heard.
“Some female students have been forced to resort to cohabiting and prostitution to raise money. Education is now a preserve for the rich,” says the parliamentary report.