A Profession Silenced Part 2: The Legalization of Sex Work in Zimbabwe

Sex Soko only wanted people to call him a sex worker. He was not a whore and he was not what most people mean when they say prostitute in Zimbabwe. Sex workers currently make up a large part of the informal economy, and in 2018 Sister with a Voice Zimbabwe, documented that there were over 75,000 sex workers in Zimbabwe. Over the last decade, hyperinflation, cash shortages, famine, and corruption culture have depleted the Zimbabwean economy, leading most of the population to live hand to mouth. It is reported that over 90% of sex workers are women, most of whom face violence at least once in their lifetime, and at least once every day when trading in sex. The remaining 10% are men, most of whom sleep with other men. In a country where sodomy is a crime and womanhood in a challenge, most sex workers are ignored and unprotected. 

Sex Soko is one of these. He is a 35-year-old sex worker working out of Zengeza, Chitungwiza. At age 20 he became a survivor of sexual assault and subsequently decided to get into sex work. He did not seem to want to speak about that. Understandably so because I was an outsider asking about a part of their lives that was not exactly public. But it was more than that. Sex Soko seemed to no longer want to associate that trauma with his profession. He said that he wanted people to know that like any job, his was not an easy one, especially not in this economy. Soko had managed over the last few years with providing for his wife and taking his two children to school. It was challenging but it was not impossible. Recently though he has had fewer customers and less room to charge fees that he thinks are fair in case it results in no income at all.

In certain instances, he has risked his sexual health for customers who offer to pay high fees for intercourse without protection.

Soko spoke to me about access. He, like many sex workers in Zimbabwe, does not have access to basic services, especially law enforcement.

“We don’t even bother to go to the police, they will say but you are whores.”

Many people are aware that this is what happens to sex workers and as a result, more perpetrators will solicit services and simply not pay. In the worst scenarios, sex workers are sexually assaulted or raped and cannot report these crimes because the stigma is put before justice. It is curious that although the culture of sex work has grown immensely, institutions are unwilling to extend recognition to those providing the service. The lack of regulation has led to the marginalization of sex workers and as a result, HIV rates have soared in Zimbabwe.

“We experience so many things, it makes us wary of clinics. The truth is you do not know what you will find there.”

In 2017, UNAIDS reported that 56.2% of sex workers were suffering from HIV/AIDS. A lack of the development of comprehensive frameworks that challenge the status quo by policymakers means that the risks in unregulated professions are higher, and access will continue to be denied.

In 2014, nine women from Harare were arrested for solicitation and subsequently convicted. Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights argued that this was in violation of section 49 and 56 of the Constitution which are :

  • A right to personal liberty
  • All persons are equal before the law and have the right to equal opportunities in political, economic, cultural and social spheres

The law that criminalizes sex work states that there must be proof of solicitation (this means beyond clothing and walking around at night) AND the person that was being solicited should be present in court. This was confirmed in this case and as a result sex workers can no longer be arrested on simple suspicion. While sex workers are somewhat protected by this judgment is not enforceable against value judgments of law enforcement and healthcare professionals.

I wanted to know about Sex Soko’s mental health but he did not want to talk about that. To him, mental health is a luxury far far away from his reach and unsustainable approach to life.

“Ukatanga kufunga zve counseling hauchatifunge zve mari”

(if you start thinking about counseling and mental health then you are no longer thinking about money)

Awareness and transformation activism must give a platform to those that have been affected. The authenticity of hearing about the lived experiences of those that have been marginalized is invaluable. That being said, it is also difficult to lobby for the regulation of sex work, or anything rather, in such aggressive statelessness. Realistically speaking, if stigma against sex workers was eliminated, they would only join the long lines at Parirenyatwa with all the other citizens that have been completely failed by the formal health system.

The biggest issue around perceptions in Zimbabwe seems to be that sex work is dirty fun that occasionally pays and yet SEX WORK IS WORK. Somehow people have understood the concept of depreciating your physical body with years of hard labor, agriculture, construction work and yet cannot seem to wrap their heads around using that same body for human pleasure and making a transaction out of the process. The hopes of civil society organizations, activists and sex workers themselves are that policymakers see the advantages of decriminalizing sex work for what they are and implement programs that protect those whose professions have been silenced.

For more interviews on sex work visit : http://www.digitalspaceslab.com/index.html