TWO scantly dressed girls, Wendy (15) and Natasha (13) (not their real names), pace up and down shop corridors checking out male shoppers exiting shops at Mubaira Growth Point in Mhondoro.
The two, who, given their ages and small statures, should be in doors playing with their age mates as it is almost nighttime, are roaming the ‘streets’.
Wendy and Natasha are part of the group of girls looked after by one Gogo Machuma, a known commercial sex worker.
The two were forced to drop out of school as their parents could not afford the fees.
With no school to think about, the girls were left with no choice but to join the bandwagon of fellow girls who are engaged in commercial sex work at the local shopping centre.
These girls have become prey to local farmers, farm workers and small-scale miners who engage their services.
To quench their sexual desires, the local men part with US$1 for a ‘short time’ or US$5 if they want to spend the night with a girl of their choice.
Wendy describes how sometimes business is slow such that one can get one client a day and whose fee is used to pay for the meal for the day.
A plate of sadza with a piece of chicken at the joint costs US$1.
It is this plate of sadza the young girls have traded their innocence for.
The sorry situation Wendy and Natasha find themselves in is not perculiar to them as reports indicate a growing number of young girls are engaging in commercial sex work.
A number of girls have been forced to drop out of school as their families cannot afford school fees.
The Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee reports that in 2019, about 60 percent of local children in primary school were forced to go back home after their guardians failed to pay fees.
Another research by UNICEF, in partnership with the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency, revealed that nearly 77 percent of children living in rural areas desperately need help.
As a result, children have had to look for alternative means of survival, including commercial sex work.
Sadly, statistics indicate that child prostitution spiked the spread of HIV and AIDS and confirms that the disease is mostly affecting younger sections of the population.
According to UNAIDS: “In 2018, a third of all new HIV cases were found in the population aged between 15 and 24, with 9 000 new cases being among young women and 4 200 among young men.”
Issues of child prostitution have been brought to the fore at international level, both as a violation of children’s rights and as a form of sexual exploitation of the same.
Article 27 (1) of the ACRWC clearly states that: “States Parties shall undertake to protect the child from all forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse and shall in particular take measures to prevent.”
Article 34 of the Convention on the Rights of Children says: “States Parties should undertake to protect the child from all forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse.”
Government has also taken a step in ensuring there are national legal frameworks which speak against child prostitution.
Section 64 (1) of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform Act) states that: “…a child below the age of 12 cannot consent to sexual intercourse.”
While Section 70 (1) of the same instrument makes “…it an offense to have sexual intercourse with a child below 16 even if they consent.”
With these legal frameworks in place, it is clear child prostitution is a crime, but, however, the nature of the act makes it difficult for law enforcers to keep accurate statistics.
With society frowning upon commercial sex work done by older women, the same treatment is given to girls engaged in it with some not viewing them as victims but as having made a choice to engage in it.
Sadly, the push factors behind the decisions the girls take are ignored.
The girls find themselves in a ‘Catch-22’ situation as not only the society paints them with a black brush, but they are also harassed by law enforcement agents who, at times, demand bribes to set them free.
The girls are also taken advantage of by their clients who sometimes refuse to pay as they know they cannot report them to the police.
The girls are sometimes physically assaulted by their clients and still cannot make formal reports.
With cases of children engaging in commercial sex work on the increase, there is need for a multi-sectoral approach to ensure the protection of the girls.
A local organisation championing the rights of children, Empower-Her advocacy officer, Charity Munezi, said, not only should society be educated on how to intervene and protect girls engaged in commercial sex work but also law enforcement agents should be roped in.
“Civic organisations working with young children should step up campaigns against child prostitution,” she said.
“With most girls ending up on the streets as a result of poverty, there is need for Government to improve on programmes such as BEAM to ensure vulnerable children access it.
“Support programmes for BEAM should also be put in place to ensure that the children have access to food, shelter, health and clothing.”
Munezi said, in the event that law enforcement agents round up these girls, efforts should be made to reunite them with their families and also ensure they get support, including counselling.
“We should work together as society to ensure that the girl-child is protected by getting adequate support in terms of resources and emotional support,” she said.