Suffering in silence – the sex workers who live in fear

Zimbabwean sex workers, especially those working on the street, have good reason to feel afraid. Not only do they have to contend with the inherent dangers of their profession but, because sex work is a crime, they face frequent abuse and harassment from the police, who are ostensibly upholding the law. Clayton Masekesa meets women in Bulawayo and Gwanda who risk everything to feed their families.

We are appealing to the law makers to decriminalise prostitution because this is the only way we can survive.
We are appealing to the law makers to decriminalise prostitution because this is the only way we can survive.

The threat of arrest does little to stop sex workers. Instead, it forces them underground and into situations that are potentially even more dangerous.

MD (29), a sex worker in Gwanda, says she will never quit her trade because it is helping her take care of her family. She looks after her two kids and six other children who became orphans after their parents died of AIDS.

She said she has been in the ‘oldest profession’ for 10 years and thinks that the Zimbabwe government should legalise sex work so that the ‘ladies of the night’ can fight for their rights and earn a living.

“I do not enjoy the job of having sex with a lot of men. It is all for survival. I want to look after my children,” she said. “All of them are going to school. They want food and shelter. I do not have a decent job besides sex work. The government should now decriminalise sex work because we are looking after families.”

MD also believes that sex workers should be able to operate in a safe environment free from harassment and abuse.

“We want to be allowed to seek pleasurable sex, dual protection and a right to be protected by the law. The police abuse us as they demand free sex and sometimes unprotected sex from us as bribes. We end up giving in to their demands and have unprotected free sex with them in order for us not to be arrested and thrown into police cells,” she said.

PM who comes from Mutare and is in Gwanda for sex work also called for the decriminalisation of sex work in Zimbabwe. She believes that criminalising the industry has not resulted in eradicating sex work or in reducing the number of people involved in the trade.


“Instead, it’s increased our vulnerability to violence and exploitation. Besides being raped by police officers, we are denied access to health services. There is stigma attached to our work. If we go to the clinics seeking ARVs, we are denied access to them by the over-zealous nurses who accuse us of being negligent and useless people,” she said.

“Sometimes, if you go and want to be treated for a sexually transmitted disease, the nurses shout at us and bring the attention of the whole clinic, which is inhumane. They should treat us fairly. We are also human beings. They are nurses with a job and I am a sex worker with a job that allows me to survive,” she added.

In her testimony at a media training and sensitisation workshop organised by

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in Bulawayo recently, a heavily pregnant MT (35), who has been in sex work for the past 13 years, said sex workers in Zimbabwe were suffering silently. She said lawmakers ought to accept that sex work was a reality.

“I am proud of what I do because it helps me look after my family. If a footballer can use his legs to earn a living by playing soccer, what is the difference for me? I use my womanhood because it is the most effective way I can look after my family. Why can’t the law protect me so that my rights are observed and I can be able to defend myself from abuse?” she asked.

She claimed the magistrates, prosecutors and police officers who tried to drive them away from the profession were also the major clients buying sex from them.

Richest clients

“Police officers abuse us. They want free sex from us. The magistrates are the ones who sentence us, but they are our first clients and those public prosecutors are actually our richest clients,” she said.

She said it was better if more organisations engaged with sex workers, educating them on crime, health and their human rights.

DN, another sex worker, said the lawmakers needed to consider their plight and recognise them as professionals who specialised in the sex trade.

“With the way we operate, we should be treated as workers just like any other profession. Our rights are being violated and we are therefore demanding some form of redress, which includes access to sexual and reproductive health care services,” she explained.

“We demand the right to be free from violence and abuse, to seek, receive and and impart information related to health and sex work. We also demand the right to control our bodies, the right to protection and no exploitation.”

SN (28), said it had been her experience that while the fear of arrest caused distress, it did not stop people from selling their bodies for sex.

“In fact, the fines that we get or the time we spend in jail cause a loss of income for us and it simply means that we have to work harder to make the money we need,” she said. “This results in some circumstances where we end up giving in to unprotected sex because we meet clients who do not want to wear condoms and they pay more. We end up having unprotected sex to cover the money lost while in jail or police cells.”

Police meeting

She spoke of how arrests prevented them from accomplishing daily tasks, like buying basic food for the family. She has two children at school.

The Centre for Sexual Health and HIV AIDS Research Zimbabwe (CeSHHAR Zimbabwe) has called on the government and other stakeholders to take considerable steps towards decriminalising sex work as a way of protecting sex workers.

The organisation’s sex work programmes coordinator, Sibongile Mtetwa, said they would soon be talking to the police commissioner general, Augustine Chihuri, to make him aware of the issues affecting sex workers.

“We are going to have meetings with the police bosses to discuss some of these issues, especially the abusive approach of the junior police officers,” she said.

Mtetwa said CeSHHAR Zimbabwe had a number of HIV prevention and sexual health research projects.

“We are implementing the national sex work programme Sisters with a Voice. The programme has received funding to research the impact and cost-effectiveness of ART treatment as prevention among sex workers attending 12 mobile sites in Zimbabwe,” she said.

David Hofisi, a lawyer with Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, said sex workers were vulnerable people operating in a tough environment.

“Decriminalisation will help address gender-based violence and help the sex workers fight for their rights,” he said.

Tabitha Khumalo, MP for Bulawayo East, who was once widely criticised for calling for decriminalisation of sex work, said people needed to accept that sex work was a reality.

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