MUTARE, ZIMBABWE, Feb 23 (IPS) – After other teenage girls her age have gone to bed at 10pm, Kudzai commutes to a shopping center near her home in Penhalonga, a mining area 25 kilometers outside Zimbabwe’s third-largest city of Mutare, to looking for men to ask for sex.
Dressed in a black and white skirt with a hem well above her knees, 15-year-old Kudzai, whose first name is used to conceal her identity, whispers a prayer to God that her night will pay off in this gold-rich area located in Manicaland province near the porous border with neighboring Mozambique.
Zimbabwe’s worsening economic crisis has forced Kudzai into the sex trade, and most of her clients are illegal and artisanal gold miners – also pushed into mining by the economic malaise combined with a high unemployment rate of over 90 percent – to make ends meet .
She usually comes home early in the morning the next day after working all night.
“That’s how I survive,” says Kudzai, who lives with his older sister in Tsvingwe, a peri-urban housing estate in Penhalonga.
“I dropped out of school last year during covid-19. My sister, who has been paying my school fees all these years, couldn’t afford it anymore.”
There are over 1,000 mining pits in the Redwing Mine concession in Penhalonga, owned by South African mining company Metallon Corporation.
The mining rights in this concession were allegedly taken illegally by a gold baron Pedzisai ‘Scott’ Sakupwanya, through his company Betterbrands Mining.
Sakupwanya, a ruling party Zanu PF councilor for Mabvuku ward 21 in the capital Harare, is also the owner of a gold buying company, Better Brands Jewellery.
His deals are exposed in a 35-page Report by the Center for Natural Resource Governance, a local civil society organization that defends the rights of communities affected by the extractive industries in Zimbabwe.
In the midst of an economic struggle, many girls in Penhalonga and surrounding areas have turned to the sex trade to make ends meet.
The artisanal and illegal miners often take advantage of these minors to sexually exploit and exploit them.
Some underage girls exchange sex for as little as $1.
Sex work is illegal in Zimbabwe.
In 2015, sex workers received relief following a landmark ruling by Zimbabwe’s Constitutional Court that a woman could not be arrested for soliciting sex simply by being in a bar or nightclub.
The legal age of consent is currently 16, but this year the Constitutional Court decided to raise it to 18.
But underage girls like Kudzai, with no other work options, have ventured into the trade and mining areas are hotspots.
Zimbabweans have gone through tumultuous times.
High inflation brought on by a worsening economic crisis due to the shock of covid-19 and, more recently, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has caused the cost of living to rise rapidly.
But before this, Zimbabwe was in an economic crisis due to massive corruption and financial mismanagement blamed on the Mnangagwa-led government.
This dire financial reality leaves low-income families like the Kudzais among the worst hit. Worse because the natural resources, like gold in Penhalonga, only benefit the elite, and the companies don’t seem to do much to give back to the community.
Kudzai sometimes sheds a tear, worrying about his bleak and uncertain future.
“I can’t save a lot of money. This is just hand-to-mouth business,” she says.
With 59.6 percent of women in the country unemployed, many are turning to sex work to make ends meet, according to a recent survey by the state-controlled Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency (ZimStat).
According to the CNRG report, illicit financial flows in Zimbabwe’s artisanal mining sector are responsible for the leakage of an estimated 3 tonnes of gold, valued at around $157 million, every month.
Most of the gold is smuggled through the porous borders of Mutare to Mozambique and South Africa.
Weston Makoni, chairman of the Penhalonga Residents and Ratepayers Trust, says the situation of girls turning to sex work in his community is worrying.
“The main driving factors are poverty, lack of food, peer pressure and the need for school fee money,” he says.
“They are attracted by artisanal miners who regularly have money on hand to buy them food, valuables such as smartphones, drugs and take them out for entertainment.”
Tapuwa O’bren Nhachi, a social scientist, says it is unfortunate because disease, abuse and trauma now determine the lives of these teenage girls.
“It also means psychological effects associated with the trade. The same girls also drop out of school and indulge in drugs that have a negative impact on their future, he says.
According to the Center for Sexual Health, HIV and Aids Research (CeSHHAR), more than 57 percent of female sex workers in the country are HIV positive.
Another 15-year-old girl, Tanaka, says some of her clients are violent and often refuse to pay her.
– We meet different people at work. Some refuse to use protection while others do not even want to pay for the services rendered,” said Tanaka, whose only first name is used to protect her.
Makoni says the companies that mine in Penhalonga should give back to the surrounding communities to help the poor.
“I basically believe that the companies would greatly help the girl children in the society by providing school fees to those who come from poor families and mostly orphans,” he says.
“They can help by engaging the community in livelihood projects, making households self-sufficient.”
Betterbrand’s mining company and Redwing Mine officials did not respond to questions sent to them by this publication.
Nhachi says companies have unlimited responsibility to ensure that communities they operate in are not deprived of social and public goods, such as affordable education, health facilities and other essential infrastructure.
“Companies should create vocational training facilities to prepare the youth for future employment opportunities, not only for them but anywhere around the country,” he says.
“Unfortunately, companies that operate in Penhalonga are mafia-style. They loot and thrive in the chaos that exists in the country, so we should not expect much from them.”
Kudzai says that if given an opportunity to return to school, she is ready and willing.
“I’m not going to spend the rest of my life like this. I hope to train as a nurse,” she says.
Note: IPS reached out to Pedzisai Sakupwanya and Redwing Mines company manager Knowledge Hofisi for comment, but they did not get back to us. We asked them the following questions.
- Housing association leaders in Penhalonga have said youths surrounding your mine are driven by poverty to enter the sex trade. We are just checking with you to see if you are running any programs to support people including young girls in Penhalonga and its environs.
- What do you do to give back to society? Residents have complained about poor infrastructure in the area.
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© Inter Press Service (2023) — All rights reservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service