Prostitutes and their pimps are taking advantage of a recent court ruling to invade Harare city centre and set up open air brothels where they conduct their trade in broad daylight, right in front of the police.
The railway area close to Harare central police station has become a hotbed of the vice, with women selling their bodies for as little as $1 and having sex in flats, offices, cars, plastic shacks, disused railway wagons, in the open in alleyways or under trees. The Avenues, a traditional haunt of prostitutes has been taken over by pimps who run brothels recruiting under-age school girls and even married women from impoverished townships and rural areas to work the gloomy sex trade under the bright city lights.
The so-called ‘vuzu parties’ where intoxicated revellers are allowed to strip and dance or swim naked have increased in areas around the bustling city centre.
The ruling by the Constitutional Court effectively barring the police from arresting unaccompanied women suspected of soliciting for money in exchange for sex in Harare has led to a sharp rise in crime and disease, police and experts say. Police had used the statute, which makes it an offence to be found “loitering for the purposes of prostitution” to arrest prostitutes. Prostitution itself is very hard to prosecute for the authorities as it requires hard evidence that transactional sex took place, was purposed or planned.
The police have apparently withdrawn tough day and night patrols from seedy areas of the city where they used to make brisk business for the state and a little money on the side arresting the so-called ladies of the night and their handlers.
“We used to arrest prostitutes and charge them with loitering for the purposes of prostitution but that law has been struck down by the court. We can’t arrest prostitutes because unless they volunteer to admit the charges, we’ll just have to let them go because you need hard evidence, which takes time and resources which we don’t have to prove the charges in court,” said a source.
Legal experts say prostitution is hard to define and to prove in court.
“Under the law, you would need evidence of the transaction between a prostitute and her client. They might have to tighten the laws on soliciting for money in exchange for sex but before that happens, most of the alleged prostitutes are just released before going to court,” said a human rights lawyer.
Women’s groups who campaigned for the removal of the draconian loitering law said it was being abused by the police to extort money from innocent women going about their business at night. The police were known to single out professionals: bank workers, teachers and others who could withdraw cash from ATMs and pay bribes on the spot to avoid the hassle of going to the police station. The police in Zimbabwe have wide-ranging powers to arrest and lock up suspects over petty offences, a result of colonial rule which has been perpetuated by the regime of dictator Robert Mugabe.
Some of the policemen were known to demand addresses of victims and follow them up at their homes or places of work demanding sex.
On the streets in the so-called Avenues area, prostitutes now parade themselves in miniskirts in broad daylight offering sex. “Iwe, hausi kuda kukwira here? (Hey, don’t you want sex?),” said a prostitute dressed in a tiny tank top and ‘skin-tights’ to an undercover reporter.
Some of the skin trade is happening at city centre joints like Tipperary’s night club owned by deputy public service, labour and social services minister Tapiwa Matangaidze, where groups of prostitutes meet, a few metres from the United States, Russian and Canadian embassies in central Harare.
Health workers say the increase in freedom of movement has attracted prostitutes from around Zimbabwe and regional countries like Zambia, Mozambique and Nigeria, fuelling disease.
“Naturally, when there is uncontrolled sexual activity, STIs and HIV increase,” said a source at Community Health, a project that conducts research on public health issues and assists vulnerable groups with information. “STIs have always been rampant in the Avenues area but there has been an increase in the number of players, multiplying the risk. We carried out that survey in an attempt to see what could happen if they actually legalised prostitution as some lobbyists. There are pros and cons. These women are trapped in a situation where they can operate freely and get more clients and more money. People have turned the railways area into an open air brothel. Some are using disused railway carriages. The problem then comes in safeguarding oneself and more specifically getting treated for STIs.”
There is no government clinic in central Harare and large ‘referral’ hospitals like Parirenyatwa charge consultation fees of up to $60, which many prostitutes who work nearby streets say they cannot afford. Some of those interviewed said they relied on traditional herbs known as ‘maguchu’ from places like Mbare market or ‘Indian’ doctors who charged between $5 and $35 for a course of treatment. Others were found to be buying antibiotics smuggled by nurses from local hospitals and sold on the street for about $3 for a course of treatment.
“Many of these women on the streets are infected with STIs but they can’t afford to be tested or to get treatment because they don’t get much money at all,” said an official at Community Health. “The situation is worse for students under 18 because they cannot get tested for HIV unless they are accompanied by parents or adult relatives, which is an impossible requirement for most of the young sex workers. Married women also have problems in adhering to treatment because of the fear of being found out by their spouses if they go to the nearest medical facility or keep medication at home. But then, many clients of prostitutes prefer young children and married women believing they will not cause problems for them after the act.”
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