Zimbabwean Students Driven to Prostitution

Impoverished students try to escape hardship and hunger by selling sexual favours.

Zimbabwean Students Driven to Prostitution

Impoverished students try to escape hardship and hunger by selling sexual favours.

Young men in Zimbabwe are angry, very angry. They have lost their manhood, and are liable to resort to anything in attempts to regain it. This - in Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe - includes beating up their wives.

It's a few days before New Year and in the spirit of the festive season men are carousing in a sports bar playing pool and watching European soccer on pay TV. Despite the biting hardships endured in a country with the fastest declining economy in the world, the mood in the pub (and the country as a whole) is genial.

But the geniality is superficial. It masks a huge and simmering crisis that is deeply affecting young men.

Joseph Bhobho is seated at the counter nursing a beer. He is neither watching TV nor playing pool. Next to him is his friend Patrick Dube. They are both young and intelligent and should have very bright futures, given the level of their education. Both have just finished post-graduate studies.

"I think I should just go back home and beat the daylights out of her," said Bhobho to Dube. A middle-aged man, also seated at the counter drinking a beer, overhears him. From experience, he knows the young man is having a domestic problem. And he asked, "What the hell is the matter?"

Bhobho is keen to talk. He tells of how he and his newly-wed wife went into town that morning to do some shopping. They had passed through an internet café to check their mail. His wife had opened her mail while he watched. There, in front of him, was a message from her university lecturer. It read, "I'm missing sex."

Bhobho, 26, is distraught. The middle-aged man offers sympathy because he knows that prostitution in his country's institutions of higher learning is virtually out of control.

There are two main reasons.

First, students, like millions of their countrymen, are going hungry on campuses. Universities and colleges simply cannot provide enough food for them. The government is broke and the meagre allowance it doles out to students is not enough to supplement the miserable food provided, let alone to buy books. Grant payments are frequently made months late because the government is cash-strapped and inefficient.

Second, students feel they have to pass at all costs, even if it means sleeping around with lecturers. According to a social studies lecturer at Harare's University of Zimbabwe - where sexual harassment of women students is rife - this has turned the whole concept of manhood upside down. "Young women at campuses want men who can provide for them," she said. "They want men who can supplement the little food provided on campus. They want men who can take them to movies. They want men who can pay to have their hair done at the hairdressers. They want men who make them feel like ladies."

Such men are known as “sugar daddies” and are deeply resented by other male students.

The social studies lecturer recalls a tragic incident not so long ago when an impoverished female first year undergraduate, Tecla Tom, committed suicide in a student hostel as an apparent way out of entrapment by a "sugar daddy".

She left a note for her husband, which said in part, "It does not matter, Innocent, my husband, the time had come.”

When students subsequently went on the rampage against the hold of sugar daddies on women students, 20-year-old science undergraduate Batanayi Madzidzi was beaten up and killed by police.

The massive economic crisis gripping Zimbabwe - with inflation approaching 600 per cent and eighty per cent of the population living below the poverty line - has not spared the education system, and students are the chief victims of the malaise.

"A real man is no longer judged on his potential," said the social studies lecturer. "In our day we looked at the potential a male student had - what he could do when he left

university. We looked at the degree programmes the young men were reading and simply from that we chose our future husbands."

But the situation is completely differently now. "A 'real' man has to have money, and money now," said the lecturer.

"Then there is the question of 'sex for exam and course work marks'."

Most of the country's talented lecturers have left the country for greener pastures. The average age of their successors has dropped to below thirty. Often people who have just completed their Master's degrees are immediately co-opted into the system as assistant lecturers. They are poorly remunerated and are very short on self-esteem. They know of no standards since they themselves are products of a weakened education system.

"They will sleep with female students and pass them without any qualm," said the social studies academic. "Like everyone else, female students just want to get the hell out of university. They cannot contemplate being failed and having to spend another year at the institutions."

So, she says, it is common practice for female students to have a sugar daddy as well as a regular boyfriend. After finishing college, they quickly want to erase the memory of the sugar daddy and marry the young boyfriend.

"But sometimes it is not easy to make the transition from the sugar daddy to the boyfriend because the boyfriend is still a young man struggling to get his feet squarely on the ground," she continued.

In Bhobho's case, his wife is still a Master's degree student, and that gives him sleepless nights. "I've already paid 120 million Zimbabwe dollars (USD 1500) in lobola (bride price), and I deserve respect," he told his older fellow drinker. "But look at the messages her lecturer is sending her. It means she is sleeping around with him."

Nor are male students exempt from prostitution. They hang around with "sugar mummies" - older women who are either divorced or widowed but who have the means to maintain a “toy boy”.

"It is common for older women to drive into campus and pick up these young men. The situation is desperate," said the social studies lecturer. "Campuses have become the epicentres of the spread of diseases such as AIDS."

There are wider social consequences. Increasingly, young men are unwilling to marry college graduates and the divorce rate among graduate couples has risen


The toy boys have become social misfits and rarely socialise with young

women of their age. With AIDS rife in Zimbabwe, affecting an estimated quarter of the population aged 15 to 49, their sugar mummies are often HIV-positive, and the boys themselves are left to die lonely deaths from AIDS after the women have passed away.

There is no easy answer for Bhobho. His friend, Patrick Dube, says he has been luckier than his friend, "I introduced my girlfriend to my family when we were still kids and both our families saw us through college. We never really had any reason to prostitute ourselves."

But until the economic and political situation changes and parents can earn enough money to give their children decent allowances, the decline in education standards and the high level of prostitution among Zimbabwe's students will continue.

Benedict Unendoro is the pseudonym of an IWPR contributor in Zimbabwe.
Support our journalists