Dressed in a miniskirt and blouse, Esther Kamupunga stood in semi-darkness waiting for men looking for s.e.x – the latest Zimbabwean to lose her job in a deepening economic crisis, worsened by the new coronavirus.
When the first Covid-19 case was detected in March, Zimbabwe rapidly went into lockdown, and the 24-year-old single mother and waitress was laid off in the eastern city of Mutare.
Life was better until the advent of this coronavirus. Our business came to a standstill due to lockdown … unfortunately I was one of the people who were retrenched,” she said, shielding her face from passing car headlights.
“I have two children. I could not watch them going to bed without eating anything. I had no option but to follow some friends to this shopping centre,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, declining to publish her real name.
The southern African nation is experiencing its worst economic crisis in a decade, with crippling hyperinflation, unemployment, strikes by public workers and shortages of food, medicine and foreign currency.
S.e.x workers and chariti.es providing them with health care services said the number of women selling s.e.x has increased, particularly young girls facing hunger at home.
“We have a lot of cases coming to us of girls who were now engaged in transactional sex because of the increase in the household poverty,” said Beatrice Savadye, director of Roots Africa, a local charity supporting young people.
Savadye said she received 350 reports of children having s.e.x in exchange for money or gifts from March to June – double the previous year – in Mazowe, a mining town 40 km north of Harare.
Her charity has been giving food parcels to hungry families.
Ordinary Zimbabweans say life is difficult, with inflation above 700%, rocketing prices for basic goods, electricity and petrol, and lagging salaries – prompting teachers to refuse to return to work without a pay rise last month.
“Hunger drives us into s.e.x trade,” said Hazel Zemura, who has sold sex for a decade and works for Women Against All Forms of Discrimination, which runs health programmes for s.e.x workers.
“As our incomes, like the cross border trading – the importation of weaves and makeup kits from China for resale – got eroded during the lockdown, we had to turn to men for survival.”
The latest government data shows 16% of Zimbabweans were unemployed in 2019, but many regard this as an underestimate.
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