Friday, September 27, 2002

Africa PlusNews

Zambia: Poor girls keep brothels in business

Niko's is a dingy 24-hour brothel in Zambia's southern tourist town of Livingstone. It is here that young girls, with few other opportunities to make money, live and work.

Niko's is home to some 30 commercial sex workers. Chiza, a slim 18-year-old, is one of them. She moved down to Livingstone from the capital, Lusaka, after dropping out of high school last year.

Livingstone's many brothels do not get much more low-budget than Niko's. It is here that girls like Chiza, if the customer insists, have "live" sex — slang for without a condom.

"For a short time, which is basically one round, we demand anything starting from 5,000 kwacha (about US $1) to 10,000 kwacha. It's really up to you and what you want to do," she told IRIN.

"I don't know why the others are here, but I came here after I dropped out of grade seven and my parents could not afford to enrol me in a private school," Chiza said.

Niko's, shabby and suffocating, is owned by a local businessman. It's rooms are always fully booked.

"We pay 15,000 kwacha per night, and if we don't have the money after a week the owner grabs our clothes until we've worked hard enough to raise the money. That's when we get our clothes back, because without clothes in our business, there's no business," explained one of Chiza's colleagues.

Nationally, the HIV-infection rate among Zambians aged between 15 and 45 is around 22 percent. In Livingstone, the rate is 31 percent, the highest in the country, according to the Central Board of Health.

Cross-Border Outreach, an anti-AIDS project run by the relief agency World Vision, has found that poverty has complicated the battle. A decade of freemarket reforms has seen the rollback of social services and widening unemployment, pushing 80 percent of Zambians below the poverty line. On top of that has come Zambia's current food crisis, which threatens 2.9 million people.

"Poverty definitely does make it hard for us to fight HIV and AIDS," project manager Judith Chileshe told IRIN. "There are young girls in the different categories of sex workers who will have sex just so that they can buy a 'pamela' of n'shima."

A pamela is a palm-sized portion of the staple maize meal.

Southern Zambia has been hardest-hit by the food crisis, triggered by two successive poor harvests. Lack of access to maize, both in terms of its availability and affordability, is expected to worsen from December onwards, as Zambia enters the traditional hunger season before next year's harvest in March/April.

In Lusaka a 25-kg bag of maize meal costs the equivalent of US $7. In Livingstone the same quantity is sold for around US $10, increasingly beyond the reach of poor households.

"I don't think these children, and even the older girls, went into [commercial sex work] for fun," said Sakwiba Sikota, the parliamentarian for the Livingstone area. "They entered this high-risk business that could cost them their lives because they want to buy food or go to school since their parents are out of work."

"If the government and all interested parties reduced or even scrapped high school fees that are forcing these young girls into commercial sex work, the battle would be half way won," Chileshe said. "As anti-AIDS activists, the least we can do is encourage people in the communities, sex workers and truckers, to have sex with condoms since we cannot stop them from having sex."

But Sikota's approach is more short term, and a good deal more controversial - to close down the brothels. "I'm going to ask police to send undercover agents to raid these places and have the owners prosecuted. Thereafter, their licenses must be revoked," he told IRIN.

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Created: November 14, 2002
Last modified: November 15, 2002
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