Since the lockdown in March last year, I have never stopped working. It is not like I am proud of what I am doing, but I have no option.
“My kids and I will starve to death if I stop. Most of my clients still come for my services, especially at night, but the lockdown has indeed slowed down business,” said a scantily dressed commercial sex worker along Josiah Chinamano Avenue, who identified herself as Stacy.
In an era ravaged by the coronavirus, lockdowns have come in handy to slow down infections and fatalities around the world.
During the current lockdown, only essential businesses are allowed to operate. Bars and nightclubs are closed, and law enforcement agencies are strictly enforcing the observance of the curfew.
However, sex workers, most of whom used to lure their suitors from activities that are presently restricted, are going to extraordinary lengths to find business in flagrant disregard of Covid-19 regulations.
The usual hotspots in the Avenues area of Harare are still active and teeming with life.
Skimpily dressed ladies of the night are going about their business as if Covid-19 does not exist.
The daring ones even roam during the day.
“Police checks and patrols are often done during the day. But that is the time that we are usually asleep. We only go out at night and rarely do we face challenges,” added Stacy.
A study conducted by Sisters with a Voice — a Zimbabwe community-led HIV programme for sex workers — indicates they are more than 40 000 female sex workers in the country.
Health experts believe most commercial sex workers are usually asymptomatic and therefore can easily spread the disease.
“There is an underground industry for sex workers where they meet a lot of clients, some of whom do not even want protection — they will create a very long chain of infection that can be dangerous to the community,” warned ROOTS Africa programmes officer Sandra Madzima.
ROOTS Africa is an independent organisation that is actively involved in a number of activities, among them facilitating national discourse in issues affecting youth empowerment and sexual reproductive health.
Kerb crawlers, who usually patrol the streets during the night when most police checkpoints into town are no longer manned, provide the sex workers with a limitless supply of potential clients.
Both the sex workers and their clients seem to be tempting fate, especially with a deadly virus on the loose.
By Thursday, more than 1 420 people had succumbed to Covid-19.
However, globally, sex work has been on the decline due to lockdowns and health protocols that recommend psychical and social distancing.
The closure of lodges, guesthouses and brothels has pushed sex workers underground, where secluded fields and deserted buildings have become convenient working spaces.
The rusty, broken down coaches, disused rail wagons and the unkempt grass at the National Railway of Zimbabwe (NRZ) Harare locomotive yard have once again become a haven.
But sex workers have to battle for space with drug peddlers and street people.
Scuffles for the once-famous blue-lined “first-class coaches” are the order of the day as they are considered “executive”.
Blue-lined first-class sleepers have been conveniently converted into bedrooms.
When The Sunday Mail Society visited the area last week, the “occupants” were neither wearing masks nor social distancing.
The ladies made obscene gestures to male passers-by in the hope of drawing attention.
“I depend on prostitution for survival. It is all that I have done in my life. I cannot be operating from home at the moment because my kids are not going to school,” said 35-year-old Shamiso Matemai (not her real name).
“Due to the lockdown, cheap guesthouses that we often make use of are also closed, thus we have no choice but to be here. Good thing is some of our clients are still following us.”
She said business at the decrepit NRZ locomotive yard was relatively better as her clients have since doubled.
“The only challenge is increased competition, which, in turn, means I have to lower my prices,” added the mother of two.
“It is frustrating. I am putting my health at risk for little amounts . . . I know I am risking my life, including that of my clients and loved ones.”
Before the pandemic, Anencia Mutombeni said they were charging between US$3 and US$5 for what they term short-time sessions or a “quickie”.
The figures have since plunged to as low as US$1.
“I am not sure what happens next. I am just waiting and hoping the Covid-19 pandemic will soon be over. Meanwhile, I will continue praying that God keeps the virus away from me and my clients. I have dodged HIV/AIDS in the past five years in this profession and hope to do the same with Covid-19,” another sex worker, who identifying herself as Lady Chantelle, said.
“The sad thing is you do not know who has the virus (coronavirus) or not. It is risky but we have no choice.
“Our profession is not recognised in the country, thus we are not getting relief funds and aid that others are getting,” adds her colleague.
Sex work is illegal in Zimbabwe.
However, street people who consider the locomotives as their abode are not happy with the new occupants.
“These ladies mainly from Mbare and surrounding areas are turning our ‘home’ into a brothel.
“We are worried they are going to bring ‘corona’ (coronavirus) for us because of the increased number of people that now come here,” said Gift, who has been using the yard as his base for years.
But the coronavirus has made sex work even riskier than before, as access to free contraceptives such as condoms has become increasingly difficult.
National Aid Council (NAC) director Dr Bernard Madzima, however, said they have come up with tailored interventions.
“We have come up with models which are programmes designed specifically for these key populations.
“The programmes ensure that the sex workers get access to services either in the hospitals or specific designated centres during the lockdown.”
The United Nations Population Fund (UNPF) has also been assisting sex workers affected by the Covid-19 pandemic across the globe.