BY MOSES MUGUGUNYEKI
Rhoda Bandama left her rural home in Shamva for Bindura with the hope of finding a job so that she could look after her family.
It was a tough time getting a decent job in the mining town, prompting Bandama, a widowed mother of three, to throw away the idea of getting a job and join the sex work bandwagon.
Today, Bandama is one of the most prominent sex workers in Bindura.
Her life has not been a bed of roses as she is exposed to many trials and tribulations that make her chosen career path grim.
Bandama is among hordes of sex workers who are most vulnerable to gender-based violence (GBV) and HIV infection.
“Sex work is not a stroll in the park. It’s a difficult job, but I had no choice as I had to feed my family,” Bandama told The Standard in Chipadze, Bindura, recently.
“We are exposed to all sorts of violence. Being beaten has become our daily bread, especially if you engage a gold panner. Look at me, I have scars and I lost two of my front teeth after I was assaulted by a ‘client’. ”
According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), about one in three women aged 15 to 49 have experienced physical violence and about one in four women have experienced sexual violence since the age of 15.
Sex workers are not spared as most are on the receiving end when it comes to physical and sexual assault or rape.
A recent media tour convened by the National Aids Council [NAC] put to the fore several factors that also heighten sex workers’ vulnerability to HIV and Aids as well as GBV.
Many sex workers face cultural, social and legal hurdles in life. They also experience violence on the streets, on the job or in their personal lives, which increases their vulnerability to HIV and GBV.
“Some men, especially gold panners, pick you from ’the touchline’ [a rendezvous for sex workers] and take you to have sex and they refuse to pay. Sometimes they beat you,” said Tracy, one of the sex workers in Chipadze.
“If you go and make a report to the police, they will not entertain you. Instead, they charge you for loitering or for violating Covid-19 regulations.”
Eighteen-year-old Previlege Manyasha, one of the sex workers plying her trade at Chibhazi, a popular meeting point for sex workers in Macheke, Mashonaland East province, said sex work was highly stigmatised.
“Apart from being assaulted, we are subjected to censure and prejudiced treatment. The community scorns us left, right and centre and even my family disowned me.
“Since I joined sex work, I have been assaulted several times with some men wanting to have unprotected sex against my will.”
Bandama said as sex workers they were now being mobilised and working with a number of organisations in tackling HIV-related stigma and discrimination as well as GBV.
NAC, working with a number of partners, has over the years broadened the reach of HIV services, supporting retention in care, increasing demand, monitoring quality, advancing human rights and combating stigma and discrimination through a strong community voice and presence.
Engaging key populations like sex workers has been an essential strategy in advocating for a robust response to HIV.
According to UNAIDS, HIV prevalence among sex workers is 10 times higher than among the general population, and sex workers are poorly served by HIV services.
The Centre for Sexual Health and HIV and Aids Research in Zimbabwe (CeSHHAR), an Aids-based organisation, empowers sex workers to improve their sexual and reproductive health, while SASA is another model designed to inspire and enable communities to rethink and reshape social norms.
“The idea behind the SASA model is to address one of the main drivers of violence against women and HIV, thus the imbalance of power between women and men, girls and boys,” said SASA programmes officer Maxwell Hombiro.
“SASA focuses on unpacking power, both its positive and negative uses, shifting away from the traditional focus on ‘gender’ towards the heart of the problem.”
Hombiro said a component of the model was to conduct awareness activities meant to assist sex workers and other vulnerable groups identify violence and access violence response services.
On the other hand, CeSHHAR has also come up with a cocktail of strategies, including community empowerment approaches with the aim of reducing the risk of acquiring HIV among sex workers.
In Zimbabwe, sex workers face criminalisation, violence, discrimination and other forms of human rights violations, which increase their risk of acquiring HIV.
“Sex work is stigmatised and we are discriminated as society shuns us. It is difficult for me and my colleagues to access health services at our local clinic here in Dema just because I am a sex worker,” said Sandra Dube, a sex worker at Dema, Seke district in Mashonaland East province.
Seke district Aids coordinator Florence Nyandoro said NAC, working with partners, is engaging hard-to-reach populations, including sex workers, through community-led programming.
“NAC is working with a number of organisations like in our case with CeSHHAR to mobilise sex workers here in Dema and other HIV hotspots in Seke districts, with the aim of reducing violence, stigma and discrimination, including sensitisation training,” Nyandoro said.
Part of the programme includes enlisting peer educators to assist in the distribution of condoms, information on sexually-transmitted infections and HIV prevention, paralegal services and health service referrals.
Sex workers who are part of the programme believe the exercise will go a long way in reducing HIV infections and STIs.
NAC communications officer Tadiwa Nyatanga-Pfupa said her organisation was not recruiting sex workers or encouraging sex work.
“All we are doing as NAC is to ensure that those that find themselves in sex work practice safe sex so as to protect themselves, their clients and their families,” Nyatanga-Pfupa said.