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the eye of the HIV/Aids storm
Ignatius Banda, Inter Press Service (IPS)
January 06, 2011
Teenage commercial sex workers are finding themselves
at the centre of the HIV/AIDS storm amid concerns of widespread
lack of condom use and a spike in the number of infections among
this demographic, despite the country's continuing HIV/AIDS
campaigns, which health authorities say has seen a drop in prevalence
in the past few years.
Young girls have become a permanent feature of night
life here, and with this year's economic turn around, the
festive season saw many cashing in on the free spending of those
with disposable income.
Teenage commercial sex workers have discovered a
boom in the sector and frequent city night clubs but clients, patrons
and barmen who spoke to IPS in separate interviews report that there
is little concern for condom use among teenage prostitutes - a claim
the teenage sex workers did not dispute.
The teenagers can be seen anywhere, from dingy hotel
lobbies to posh pubs, without any concern for protection against
HIV. While they may be aware of the risks involved, they are not
in a position to negotiate with clients who are ready to pay higher
fees for unprotected sex.
Some revealed, while they have heard of the female
condom, they have never bothered to learn more about it. This is
despite recommendations by health professionals and the Ministry
of Health that the use of this prophylactic is empowering for women,
as it allows them to decide on which protection to use during sex.
"I have a steady client and we have since ceased
using condoms," said one teenage commercial sex worker who
only gave her name as Tasha.
"What use is it anyway? If I insist on condoms
he will simply look for someone else to spend his money on,"
she said, which was a common response among the young women who
are commercial sex workers.
Another sex worker, who said her name was 'Beyonce,
said matter-of-factly, "If you are concerned about HIV/AIDS,
you stay home." While it has been suggested that commercial
sex workers carry condoms in their purses to offer their clients,
Beyonce said carrying condoms in her handbag is "unlady- like."
Ironically she asks, "Imagine if my mother
found condoms in my purse?", highlighting still-existing attitudes
concerning safe sex and cultural considerations that demand delayed
sexual initiation, when teenagers like Beyonce are already earning
a living from sex.
The US Centre for Reproductive Law and Policy, working
in conjunction with the Harare-based Child and Law Foundation, has
found that health workers turn away young unmarried youth seeking
condoms and hormonal contraception unless their parents are notified.
This itself defies customs that demand abstinence
when in fact teenagers like Tasha and Beyonce are already selling
sex. Amid continuing deprivation despite the country's economic
recovery claims, social workers say young women are increasingly
taking over Bulawayo's night life and fend for themselves
through commercial sex work.
"As far as I have been working here, I have
seen little interest in patrons buying condoms but these are people
I know are regular clients of these young girls," said Richard
Baleni* a barman at a city pub.
"Maybe they buy them elsewhere but I don't
believe that," Baleni said. According to UNAIDS, despite the
decline of prevalence in Zimbabwe over the past the few years, the
15-19 year old age group, in particular, still remains highly exposed
to HIV infection.
The U.N. agency notes that the young women have
become high risk because they are more vulnerable and susceptible
to HIV infection biologically, economically and culturally than
Professor Simon Gregson, a researcher working on
HIV epidemiology at the Biomedical Research and Training Institute
in Harare, says despite the reported unprotected sex of teenage
prostitutes, their representation in the spread of infections can
still remain small.
"It is quite possible for HIV prevalence to
increase in one demographic at the same time it is declining overall,
especially when the group concerned is small," Gregson said.
"But this is not to say that if it is true
that teenage sex workers are having unprotected sex, we shouldn't
be concerned and try to come up with programmes to help them recognise
the dangers and do something to protect themselves," he told
Zimbabwe is one of many countries in Southern Africa
where multiple concurrent sex partners are still viewed as a cultural
norm, especially among men, and researchers say this has stoked
the spread of HIV/AIDS.
Yet the circumstances of teenage commercial sex
workers like Tasha, who routinely have unprotected sex, could point
to deeper challenges the country faces in maintaining its gains
against HIV/AIDS, according to health workers.
"The fact that these young girls have chosen
this as a way of life means they have no bargaining clout, as the
sex is always with older clients who tend to prefer young prostitutes
based on the belief they are AIDS-free," says HIV counsellor
"I talk to many young girls living with HIV
and the stories they tell are the same: they could not tell their
partners anything about condom use. These are girls who already
know the consequences but because of their economic circumstances
throw caution to the wind," Moyo said.
According to Moyo, what makes the circumstances
of these young girls different from their peers who are involved
with older men is that these girls are out there at night "consciously"
earning money as commercial sex workers with multiple strangers.
"Their friends who sleep with sugar daddies
are not out there at night and tend to have one steady older man,
who nevertheless exposes them to the same risks," Moyo said.
And with the city lights continuing to provide what
seems to be an irresistible lure for teenagers like Tasha, there
are fears that this fight is far from over as older men continue
to seek out younger prostitutes. *not his real name.
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