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Desperate Zimbabweans Resort to “Transactional” Sex

Catastrophic decline of country’s economy fuels changing sexual habits.

Deep poverty, fuelled in part by runaway inflation, has pushed great numbers of vulnerable Zimbabwean women living in the country's towns and cities to enter commercial sex work or “transactional” sexual relationships. The exchange of gifts or money for sex is now common among women aged between 15 and 45 years.

It is less gifts like perfumes, dresses, haute cuisine dining and jewellery - as in richer and more sophisticated societies - than cash for basics like groceries, rent and school fees for the children of single mothers. Some have dared to demand cars in exchange for sex.

The phenomenon, in a culture where all social indicators indicate catastrophic decline, reflects something that Uganda's minister of youth and children’s affairs Jimmy Kinobe has said about transactional sex - affection and warmth between the sexes has become “something for something love” and a threat to Uganda’s battle with HIV/Aids.

The desire to obtain luxury items, such as designer clothing, jewellery, fashionable hairstyles, accessories and make-up, has always motivated many women in Africa to engage in transactional sex. But in Zimbabwe, because of the dramatic economic decline since 1999/2000, which has caused extensive extreme poverty, some parents have pressurised their own children to engage in transactional sex to finance their education and the family's household necessities.

Innumerable families are being sustained by groceries and money provided by their children’s “sugar daddies”.

A prominent Harare lawyer told IWPR, “How do you think women are surviving in the high density areas like Mbare, Mabvuku and Epworth [poverty-stricken working class suburbs of Harare]. It is guys who sell foodstuffs, the combi taxi drivers and touts, the guys who get stuff, who are getting the sex in exchange for food. The situation has worsened and life is just unaffordable even for professional people like me.”

Poverty and HIV/AIDS infection are deeply intertwined. With the burden of caring for the sick, the dying and the orphaned forcing thousands of Zimbabwean women deeper into poverty and draining their energy and self-esteem, so it increases the pressure to resort to high risk transactional sex, with older sugar daddies offering the daydream of material security.

One single mother of a 16-year old girl told IWPR that she expects her sixth-form daughter to supplement her parent's income. “What do you want me to do?" said the mother sorrowfully. "I am an unemployed, single mother and my two children need to go to school. How do you expect me to raise the money for school fees, groceries, uniforms, clothes and other basics? My only income comes from renting out the main part of my house.

"So my daughter has been helping me. I don’t ask where she gets the money from, as long as she brings something home.”

But, the mother then admitted, she knows her daughter's income comes from selling sex.

The woman's husband died from an AIDS-related illness and she also tested HIV-positive. She knows that her daughter is exposed to HIV infection from her chosen method of raising money for the family.

The mother allows men to pick up her daughter from her home at night and has also been pushing her to have a sexual relationship with a pastor at her church. “I don’t ask where she goes and what she does," she said. "I am just happy that she is able to bring something to the table. How did you think I could afford expensive clothes for her and her brother and the mountain bike my son has?”

Rentals now range between 30,000 and 250,000 Zimbabwe dollars [121 to 995 US dollars] a month for a bed-sitter or two-bedroom flat, while three-bedroom houses range from 100,000 to 300,000 Zimbabwe dollars in middle-class suburbs. Rents and other prices increase almost daily, with the International Monetary Fund predicting that Zimbabwe's current inflation rate of 1,200 per cent will top 4,000 per cent next year.

The increasing demands by women for material rewards in exchange for sex is beginning to have another social impact. Married men interviewed by IWPR said it was becoming prohibitively expensive to engage in extra-marital affairs. “Women, especially those we refer to as the 'youth policy', are unmanageable, even for the so-called rich," said one financial executive. "The other day a 17-year-old girl whom I had just started dating asked me for 200,000 Zimbabwe dollars to buy her grandmother drugs.

“I automatically dumped her and told her that I was not there to look after her grandmother. I know this was just a way to ask me for money for other things.”

A top civil servant said women expected a lot from him because of his post in government. He said the highest amount a woman paramour had asked him for was 500,000 Zimbabwe dollars - on top of three trolley-loads of groceries.

“Women have gone mad," he said. "They take you to a supermarket and ask you to pay. A friend of mine was shocked when his girlfriend asked him for 100 000 Zimbabwe dollars to pay rent and deposit for a one-bedroom flat, and when I showed him the demands I received from a woman I had just dated he almost fainted.

“Before the introduction of the new currency, a lot of men had to move around with travel bags full of money just to meet their girlfriends’ demands. Our biggest problem is what we call ‘youth policy’. These young girls want money – it’s understandable because hairstyles, clothes and everything else are now expensive.”

In a cosmetic exercise which did nothing to slow inflation, but reduced the weight of banknotes Zimbabweans carry with them in bags and boxes, Central Bank Governor Gideon Gono knocked three zeros off the currency last month and issued new notes.

One struggling married businessman who keeps a mistress said, "When a text message appears saying 'I need a huge favour', you just know the issue is about money. These women are draining us and those days of having girlfriends are over because you will just work for them and be stressed for life.”

One man asked to buy groceries for his youth policy said that when he brought two small carrier bags containing single items of basics, the woman threw them out of her flat window, saying that when she asked for "groceries" she expected to be given things she cannot normally afford.

A young secretary for an insurance company told IWPR that her days of having sexual relationships for nothing with men, especially married men, were over. Looks do not matter, she said, as long as he has a nice car and a fat bank account. “You want me to have sex with a man for nothing?" she said. "The man has to show me what he can do in terms of providing for me, and my children, before I can even consider sleeping with him. Age is not a factor – it’s how fat his pockets are.”

This fast developing social trend also flows in the opposite sexual direction. Young men are having transactional sexual relationships with rich married women, some of whom refer to their young lovers as “painkillers”.

One young man clashed with his parents and decided to move in to his friend's up-market flat, unaware that the rent was being paid by a “sugar mommy”. He was shocked when

his friend told him to leave because the "big mama" did not want visitors sleeping there who might disturb her visits when she sneaks out of her matrimonial home.

“Some of these guys you see driving fancy cars and staying in flats are being looked after by older women," said the young man. "The older women who feel deprived by their husbands but also believe in a youth policy of their own are now very aggressive and will do everything to get a younger man.”

The consequences of transactional sex, bolstered by a culture in which male infidelity has often been explicitly or implicitly sanctioned, are catastrophic. Zimbabwean women now have the shortest lifespan in the world, according to the World Health Organisation. Largely as a result of HIV/AIDS, Zimbabwean women now have a life expectancy of 34 years and men of 37, said WHO in its annual report for 2006. According to the United Nations Children's Fund, three babies in Zimbabwe become infected with HIV every hour.

"But Zimbabwe needs support more than outrage," commented UNICEF spokesman James Elder. "It is constantly inspiring the way Zimbabweans continue to support each other amid desperate economic times, and 90 per cent of the country's 1.5 million [AIDS] orphans are still cared for by extended family. But the stress that a Zimbabwe family is under is becoming unbearable."

Hativagone Mushonga is the pseudonym of an IWPR journalist in Zimbabwe.


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