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Prostitutes, vendors scrounge on Zim roads

- Sky News

(Monday, November 21, 2005)

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"Some have nothing to offer but their bodies."

The "highway girls" wave at truckers while teenage boys in tattered clothes hold up fuel cans to passing motorists. Zimbabwe's major roads these days are littered with people trying to eke out a living any way they can. Rising poverty in the southern African state has forced thousands of young people in the countryside to work either as prostitutes or vendors, selling everything from scarce commodities such as fuel and sugar to firewood, wild fruit and twists of marijuana -- which thrive in the local climate. Some have nothing to offer but their bodies.

Day and night, young women -- many just out of their teens and invariably wearing skimpy dresses or clinging pants -- line up at bus stations outside towns big and small, offering sex to motorists for "a little fee". The women, popularly known as "the highway girls," are generally picked up by crossborder truck drivers, who regional health officials say are fuelling an AIDS/HIV pandemic said to be killing 2,500 Zimbabweans each week. "I have to do this because there are no jobs, and the income is a bit higher than selling vegetables," said Rumbidzai, a 20-year-old woman who has been working as a prostitute from the central town of Chivhu for two years. "I know there is AIDS, and I insist on condoms," she added.

The work of the highway girls has been immortalized in a popular song entitled Madhara Egonyeti (Elderly Truckers), which pleads with drivers to desist from sleeping with young girls. While the women parade and wave down potential customers, further down the road a group of scruffy teenage boys are waving fuel cans, saying they have the scarce commodity for sale at blackmarket prices of up to four times the official rate.

Joshua Masarakwedu, 16, said his trade was quite profitable. "We buy from truckers or other dealers and we hold back and sell during dry days when there is no fuel and prices are good." The highway girls and the fuel traders vie for a living on Zimbabwe's roads alongside fish and fish-worm sellers, beggars and drug peddlers who offer potential customers marijuana.

The problem has got worse since the government demolished shantytowns and thousands of "illegal" houses in a controversial campaign early this year, which the United Nations said left about 700,000 people homeless and destroyed the informal sector. Zimbabwe is struggling with a severe economic crisis which many government critics blame on President Robert Mugabe, in power since independence from Britain in 1980.

Mugabe's policies have seen a former food exporter holding out a begging bowl for the last five years as people grapple with rising poverty and unemployment of well over 70 percent, the critics say. But the 81-year-old Zimbabwean leader says the economy has been sabotaged by domestic and Western opponents seeking to oust him over the controversial seizure and redistribution of white-owned farms to his black supporters.

An estimated 3.5 million Zimbabweans -- about a quarter of the national population -- have sought jobs and homes abroad, many of them illegally, as a result of a political and economic crisis blamed on Mugabe's increasingly controversial rule. Hundreds of thousands live and work illegally in Britain, Zimbabwe's former colonial master.

Two Kenyan prostitutes work the main trucking road that cuts across the continent from Djibouti to South Africa.
Two Kenyan prostitutes work the main trucking road that cuts across the continent from Djibouti to South Africa. African prostitution rings traffic an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 young women and girls out of Africa each year to work in Western Europe and North America.
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