Climate change forcing Zimbabwean girls into sex work

As global warming continues to devastate rural agriculture, young women are moving to urban centres – and into prostitution.

A woman with a baby on her back collects water in Mabvuku, a highly-populated suburb in Harare, Zimbabwe
Most areas in Zimbabwe have been hit hard by climate change with heatwaves, low precipitation, or excessive rain resulting in flash floods [File: Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters]

Epworth, Zimbabwe – Tawanda, 16, gazes calmly into the sky as the sun sets, getting ready for work as the night begins.

Tawanda, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, is among hundreds of girls from Zimbabwe’s rural regions who joined the sex trade in recent years in urban centres.

“We wait until dusk to start working … Mostly our clients are ones we protect because they do not want to be seen as one is married and others are respected people in the community. Otherwise, we are open for 24 hours,” Tawanda says.

Soon after the death of her parents, she dropped out of school as her grandmother could no longer afford the fees. After years of drought and failed crops, Tawanda could not see a future in the countryside, prompting her at age of 14 to relocate to the capital Harare in search of a better life.

“I came here as a babysitter. For six months I worked as a maid, but it was not lucrative. When the COVID-19 pandemic started, it became worse because the woman I was working for reduced my already meagre salary. So I quit the job,” she says.

Tawanda did not want to go back home and relocated to Epworth, 12km (7.5 miles) east of the capital Harare, where after meeting friends she was initiated into sex work.

The city is notorious for violence, prostitution, and drugs with a population that continues to increase with rural-to-urban migration.

Tawanda and other teenage girls gather at a spot popularly known as the “booster”, where a tall communications tower shoots into the sky. During the day, the area is quiet, with few people around. But once night falls it is a beehive of activity as sex workers solicit clients.

Catherine Masunda, the founder of Youth 2 Youth, a community-based organisation in Harare, says while statistics on the number of young girls involved in prostitution are difficult to quantify, the situation is worrying.

‘It’s business’

Another teenage girl, Chipo, whose name has also been changed for her safety, told Al Jazeera the sex trade is risky, but she has no option. Unlike in the past, job opportunities on farms in rural areas are becoming fewer each year because of the effects of climate change.

“I came at the age of 16. I have a sister residing here in Epworth … I could not supplement my education because of no money. Later on, I found myself joining sex work. Sometimes we are infected with sexually transmitted infections, but it’s business so we seek treatment,” says Chipo.

Chipo recalls the ravages of climate change on her rural home. The most worrying effects are not the droughts but flash floods, she says, which destroy crops and property – and sometimes human lives.

“In 2020, the year I finished [school], I expected to plant soya beans, which is a less labour intensive cash crop, so that I could pay fees and rent a room. The rains came but they turned into floods and washed away my project,” says Chipo.

With well-paying work scarce in the country, the majority of people here get by as street vendors and informal manufacturers, with prostitution another prominent job.

Many of the teenage girls have experienced clients refusing to pay for services rendered, with some enduring sexual abuse and assault. In Zimbabwe, it is a criminal offence to solicit for sex, which makes it difficult for young women to report wrongdoing against them to the police.

‘Dangerous trade’

Memory Kanyati, provincial director of the Zimbabwe Youth Council Harare, says the growing number of children in prostitution is a concerning development.

“We are seeing many of them involved in this dangerous trade, a situation which is not healthy for them. As a council we represent government aspirations of seeing children developing life skills and capacity to be responsible citizens,” Kanyati says.

Most areas in Zimbabwe have been hit hard by climate change with heatwaves, low precipitation, or excessive rain resulting in flash floods.

David Marekera, the village head in Maramba in Mashonaland East province, 130km (80 miles) south of Harare, said climate change is not only bringing hunger in the community but destroying the future of children.

“It is very unfortunate. To us, the damage is high and irreversible at least for now. Teen boys are quitting school going to artisanal mining in the Mazowe dam. Teen girls are going into child marriages and child prostitution because of hunger,” says Marekera.

Zimbabwe’s National Climate Change Response Strategy states: “Climate change is the biggest threat to humanity today.”

It is estimated it will cause average temperatures in Zimbabwe to rise about 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century. Annual rainfall could decline by 5-18 percent, especially in the country’s south.

Dropping out

Onita Sibanda, from Hwange district in northwestern Zimbabwe, says most of the girls her age moved to urban areas to escape the effects of climate change.

“It’s difficult to quantify the numbers flocking out the villages of Hwange. But our fields have been not producing enough in the past years,” she told Al Jazeera.

“Generally the weather is bad. Here in Hwange, we are experiencing flash floods and storms almost every year for the past three years. Girls are dropping out of schools or just after finishing going to the city to seek jobs, but later turning to prostitution,” says Onita.

Daniel Sithole – a climate analyst and director of Green Shango Trust, a non-profit organisation focusing on climate change mitigation – says it is Zimbabwe’s women who are most affected by global warming.

“Women are disproportionately vulnerable to the effects of climate change, which could, in turn, exacerbate existing gender disparities,” says Sithole.

Source: Al Jazeera