Harare, Zimbabwe – A woman dressed in a fake Burberry trench-coat struts along a pitch-dark stretch of this southern African city’s red-light district.
Sporting knee-high boots and red lipstick, Sharon opens her coat into the headlights of an oncoming car to expose body-hugging leopard-print lingerie, prompting the vehicle to screech to a halt.
“Hi sweetie,” she says to the male motorist. Sharon closes the deal, stuffs $20 into her bra, and scans the street for police officers before getting into the passenger seat.
Just three months ago, it was not uncommon to see dozens of semi-nude women shimmying along the so-called “Avenues” in Harare – a residential area just outside the central business district.
But today, Sharon is an exception: a recent police crackdown has sent most of the area’s prostitutes underground.
Police have also launched surprise raids on pubs and nightclubs dotted around the city centre, rounding up women believed to be commercial sex workers. In the dimly lit pubs, with their purple fluorescent lights and deafening music, half-naked women gyrate to the fast local beat to entice potential clients.
The crackdown has courted widespread resentment, outraging women and rights groups who say the police operation is sexist and is being implemented unfairly.
Residents complain that police target women simply because they are walking alone at night, without male company.
“You can’t go to the shops after 8pm because they assume everyone is a hooker. It’s plain harassment, simple,” said Memory Gumbo, an Avenues resident and mother of two.
AIDS-plagued Zimbabwe hails HIV ‘cure’
Commercial sex workers claim the officers are “notorious” for demanding sex in exchange for freedom.
“If you don’t have the fine, they demand ‘a short time,'” said Makah, a loud, street-savvy prostitute who declined to give her surname.
A December 2012 survey of Kenya, Namibia, Russia, South Africa, the United States and Zimbabwe by the UK-based Open Society Foundation found Zimbabwe police led the six nations in terms of “harassing and abusing physically sex workers”.
The survey found 85 percent of prostitutes in Zimbabwe said they had suffered extortion at the hands of law enforcement agents.
As a result, the report titled Criminalising Condoms, stated: “Some sex workers opt not to carry condoms because they fear police harassment and detention, thus increasing their risk of exposure to HIV and compromising their health and the health of their sexual partners.”
Series of crackdowns
Police spokesman Inspector Tadius Chibanda denied the harassment claims, urging women to report such treatment by officers.
Although Chibanda described the anti-prostitution operation as a success, he added: “We always complain that they [the prostitutes] pay a fine and go back, so it’s like a merry-go-round.” He called for a more punitive regime to curb the practice, instead of mere fines.
Crackdowns on prostitution have been a staple of Zimbabwe police departments for decades, starting in the 1980s with Operation Chinyavada (“Scorpion”), which rounded up prostitutes in the early years after independence from British colonial rule.
After a long hiatus, police resumed the crackdowns, starting with Chipo Chiroorwa (“Chipo Get Married”), Operation Chengetedza Hunhu (“Maintain Your Dignity”), and the more recent Operation Dyira Bonus Kumba (“Take Your Bonus Money Home”) launched in December.
The most recent operation, begun in February 2013, is called “No to Loitering”. On the first day, the campaign netted 60 people charged with soliciting for the purposes of prostitution. They were later fined and freed by a Harare magistrate.
Although the police have deployed many strategies to rid the city of prostitution, they have so far failed to stymie the world’s oldest profession.
‘Takes two to tango’
Critics say police officers are only focusing on the supply side of the equation, urging them to also arrest prostitutes’ clients.
Netty Musanhu, director of the Musasa Project, an NGO that fights gender-based violence in Zimbabwe, questioned why police are not arresting customers. “It takes two to tango,” Musanhu said, also expressing concern that officers were infringing on women’s right to movement.
“Zimbabwean women are outraged by the continuation and escalation of the arbitrary arrests and harassment of women.“
– Rights groups’ petition
Officers often camp outside pubs to pounce on any woman leaving with male company, but have been known to let the men walk away without charge.
But the police spokesman Chibanda said both the alleged prostitutes and their male clients were often detained.
“In most cases men get away, but if they are found they will [be] arrest[ed],” Chibanda said.
Zimbabwean women’s rights groups have filed a formal protest with the Ministry of Home Affairs.
“Zimbabwean women are outraged by the continuation and escalation of the arbitrary arrests and harassment of women in Zimbabwe on grounds of loitering, soliciting and prostitution, whilst going on with their daily business during the day or in the evening,” reads the petition.
Theresa Makone, Zimbabwe’s co-minister of Home Affairs, has publicly called for an end to the crackdown.
And legislator Tabitha Khumalo has stirred up a hornet’s nest by pushing proposals in parliament that would decriminalise sex work.
Khumalo has also threatened to expose fellow legislators who have gallivanted with those she calls “pleasure managers” if they refuse to back her motion.