Night falls across Harare and Tracy Ncube sashays up Fife Avenue in a tight skirt and borrowed shirt to sell the only thing she can.
Half a dozen other young women are already stationed outside Tipperary’s bar and Ncube picks her spot, a tree opposite the car park illuminated by headlights. She has been a prostitute for two weeks and has bagged three customers, earning $45 (£25).
Zimbabwe’s youth were once considered Africa’s brightest, graduates of one of the continent’s best education systems which bred sophistication, confidence and ambition.
But the economy has crumbled and, with it, opportunity. There are virtually no jobs. Some 90 per cent of the country’s 11.8 million people live on less than $1 a day. Hyperinflation and food shortages are making the middle class destitute.
So, a fortnight ago, Ncube, 23, turned to prostitution. ‘These days life is very hard. My family doesn’t know that I do this, but how else am I to survive?’
She was visibly nervous. Her voice trembled, but she was determined to bag a fourth customer to earn between $7 and $20.
Aid jargon calls prostitution, or transactional sex, a ‘negative coping mechanism’, a desperate but effective way to get by.
Others emigrate, flying to Britain to work as nurses or jumping a fence to scrounge jobs in Botswana or South Africa. Their pay keeps many families afloat. For President Robert Mugabe, all this is excellent news. Inflation is close to 400 per cent, unemployment is at 70 per cent and hunger and homelessness are spreading, but there is no sign of revolution.
Yesterday the country was digesting the surprise acquittal of the opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, who had been charged with attempting to assassinate the president. On Friday a high court in Harare dismissed the case which for two years had crippled his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). It was a significant boost for the party but there was little public jubilation.
Partly this was because police in riot gear patrolled the capital with guns and batons. A military jet roared low overhead to reinforce the authority of a regime in power since independence from Britain in 1980.
But another reason was resignation. Analysts say that the ruling Zanu-PF party will sweep parliamentary elections due next March because opposition has been crushed.
Starved of an independent media and the right to campaign freely, the MDC has withered, according to a senior MP who asked not to be named. Its narrow defeats in rigged elections in 2000 and 2002 were high-water marks, he said.
Both cause and symptom of its malaise are to be found on Fife Avenue. At night, the smart, leafy suburb close to the city centre is a red-light district.
None of the prostitutes had a good word to say about Mugabe, whom they accused of despotism, but none responded to the MDC’s plea to rally at the high court for Tsvangirai’s verdict.
‘Look, I’m a working girl. I need to sleep and do things around the house during the day,’ said Talent Mushonga, 23. Samantha Hazvinei, 24, said girls as young as 15 and middle-aged married women were turning up. ‘We are too many ladies looking for too few men. I need to come earlier and earlier and stay longer to get business.’
A UN report last year said poverty and hunger were fuelling child labour and prostitution. An aid worker, who did not want to be named because of a crackdown on non-governmental organisations, said she knew middle-aged women, including nurses, teachers and police officers, who had turned to prostitution.
Maxine, 27, a three-year veteran of Fife Avenue, said the new arrivals were reckless. ‘They are hot hot, chilli chilli, all in a rush. But they don’t last, they die fast.’
Official figures show that 24.6 per cent of the adult population is infected with HIV, one of the highest rates in the world.
Ncube said she preferred to use a condom but admitted the competition for customers – and frequent demand for unprotected sex – could weaken her resolve.
‘What else can I do? Go out and demonstrate against the government? Demand change?’ The notion made her laug
POLICE in Harare have embarked on a blitz arresting women in bars and night spots, accusing them of engaging in prostitution, a move roundly condemned by women and human rights organisations.
For the past two weeks, female dancers and patrons in bars have been arrested and fined by the police in the capital. Popular raunchy dancer, Beverly Sibanda, on Friday said the police were causing mayhem in the bars.
“Two weeks ago when I performed at City Sports Bar, I was confronted by four police officers as I walked out of the bar after my show,” said Beverly.
“They told me I had been arrested and I asked them what they were charging me for and they simply said there was an operation.”
Beverly added: “They only left me and my group when we forcibly got into our car but they went away with almost 10 other women they had taken out of the bar.”
Beverly condemned the police’s act. “What they are doing is wrong because they are discriminating against women. It is not a crime in Zimbabwe to be a female in a bar at night,” she said.
“Even if this was aimed at curbing prostitution, there are many other issues that need to be addressed before they can start persecuting people. After all, not every woman in a bar is a prostitute.”
Feminist activist, Everjoice Win, said even if the operation was to rid Harare of prostitution, it still bordered on infringement of rights as those involved in the act, made conscious choices. “Sex work is work so why eradicate it,” Win said.
“Those people did their maths and economic analysis. Some have day-time jobs and they have reasons why they have to take up sex work as a second job.”
She said the arrests emanated from the misconception that these were young, unemployed girls going astray, yet they were talking about adults who have the capacity to make their own choices.
Win, formerly a Commonwealth advisor to the Commission on Gender Equality, said women were entitled to freedom of movement and association just like men. She said women should be allowed to choose their economic life without any hindrances.
Women’s Action Group (WAG) executive director, Edinah Masiyiwa, said the blitz was derailing progress the country had made towards gender equality. “Gender inequality is what necessitated the birth of WAG because women were being denied their freedom of movement and association,” Masiyiwa said.
“We are still researching on this issue to try and understand what really transpired but if it is true that they were indiscriminately arresting women in bars, then that negates the progress we had made in the area of gender equality.
She added: “Women too have a right to access bars.” Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) programmes manager, Dzimbabwe Chimbga, said the organisation last Tuesday represented 17 women who were randomly arrested as part of the operation.
“The women were randomly picked up and accused of being ladies of the night,” he said. “The court released them on bail. But we are saying the law should not be blind to people’s rights and freedoms.”
Chimbga said women have a right “to be at any bar they so wish to be at and of course at any time of the day, be it in the morning, afternoon, evening and even at night.”
He urged the police to stop the operation forthwith saying they should only intervene when a crime has been or is about to be committed.
Arrests only after surveillance: Sabau
Harare police spokesperson inspector, James Sabau, confirmed that the police have an operation aimed at getting rid of touts, streets kids and prostitutes in an effort to reduce crime in the city.
He however denied that they were targeting innocent women in bars and night spots insisting that the arrest are made after proper surveillance by police in plain clothes before those in uniform effected the arrest.
“We are not targeting innocent women at random but these arrests are done after proper surveillance,” said Sabau. “If there is a bar owner, where police arrest women inside his or her bar, they should come forward and make a complaint to Officer Commanding Harare so that investigations can be carried out.”