Saturday 11 December 2021


WITH social distancing rules in place and nightclubs and bars closing earlier than usual, sex workers around the city have seen their incomes disappear almost overnight as a result of the coronavirus pandemic (Covid-19).

Fearing for their livelihoods, as well as their health, some are offering services online to keep their business going, while others are turning to charities for help.

Ntando Ncube*  has worked as a “hooker” for the past 10 years in Bulawayo, carefully building relationships with her clients.

But the spread of Covid-19 and the need for social distancing has prompted a drop in sex work, leaving her worried that her efforts will go to waste.

“It’s fair to say that if I’m not working for six months, a lot of people are going to forget me,” she says.

“I can’t contact my clients and just have a conversation with them. That doesn’t work in my industry. We need to build intimacy and that’s just not possible in the current environment.”

Before the Covid-19 outbreak, Ntando says she was earning an above-average income, and was able to get herself decent accommodation in North End.

Now nearly all her income has been lost. She has tried to adapt by moving her business online through WhatsApp, but says that cannot replace physical contact.

“Unfortunately, there are things that can’t be translated,” she says.

“I have made efforts to go online but not everyone is tech savvy. Some of my clients don’t even really know how to use a smartphone.”

While the Central Government has outlined a clear roadmap to reopening restaurants and cafes, there has been no plan for the sex industry.

That uncertainty, coupled with the many unknowns surrounding the virus itself, has left many sex workers with deep anxiety.

“I’m scared that all my work will come back to zero and I will just have to start hustling like I did when I first started out,” Ntando says.

She also fears for her clients’ health.

Are they even going to be there?” she says.

“There’s a lot of nervous energy going around.”

That’s left sex worker collectives and advocacy groups calling for members of the public to donate to emergency funds.

“These have been a real lifeline to sex workers for immediate bill paying, access to food and other key needs.

Some sex workers have been forced to continue working, risking hefty fines or exposure to the virus.

“In this country, sex workers are often the main breadwinner for the whole family, for their siblings, their children and their grandparents. So, this affects the whole extended family,” Ntando says.

But some sex workers find themselves unable to keep working – even if they would choose to. In Bulawayo, police have been patrolling the streets arresting anyone found on the streets during the curfew period.

In Zimbabwe, the Government set 9pm to 6am as curfew times in an effort to curtail the spread of the pandemic.

“We cannot work now, so we don’t have any income, which is scary,” says “Pinky”, who didn’t want to give her real name.

Pinky supports three children who live with her sister back in her rural village. She came to the city eight years ago when she was just 16. Although she needs money, she worries about the dangers of working during the pandemic.

“Even if we could work, people’s lives are at risk from the virus. We’d be scared to go to bed with our clients anyway, as we don’t know who is affected,” she says.

Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, thousands of ‘Johns’ would make use of their services every day and night. Many of the women and children who have turned to prostitution are victims of some sort of abuse with many of the younger ones runaways from family abuse.

“A lot of us either ran away or were thrown out of their homes as children. We lived on the streets and eventually turned to sex work to make ends meet,” says Patience Munyandu, who originally comes from Masvingo.

“I came to Bulawayo when I was 11, lived on the streets and was eventually raped when I was 14. After being raped, I couldn’t report my attacker because I didn’t even know his name. He just picked me up off the streets and promised me a home.

He took me to his house where he raped me all night before kicking me out in the morning,” Patience told Sunday News.

“I decided I may as well start making money from my body and maybe get off the streets. And for three years now I have worked on the streets,” Patience said.

While the Government and local aid organisations have delivered some emergency funds to the women, Patience says it has not been enough and some women received nothing at all.

“The amount of donations they’ve received from the Government or NGOs does not cover much,” she says. Sunday News


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