Sex workers scramble for operating space in the wake of coronavirus
By Raymond Jaravaza
Standing at a dimly lit street corner opposite a once popular nightclub in Bulawayo, five skimpily dressed sex workers flag down passing vehicles and individuals on foot soliciting for clients.
It’s not business as usual for the sex workers who have been operating at the corner of Robert Mugabe Way and 13th Avenue near the now defunct Club Forty 40. Apart from the usual glances to check on the police officers on patrol, the five sex workers face a new threat to their business.
Their territory is under threat from fellow sex workers who used to operate from bars and nightclubs. Getting an impromptu interview from a sex worker is not easy as they are suspicious of anyone asking questions about their trade.
In exchange for $80 paid via Ecocash, one of them concedes to an interview on condition that this reporter doesn’t ask her too many questions that will lead the police to their territory.
“Show me the transaction before I talk to you, I left my phone at home so I need to confirm that you have sent the money. The time I will spend talking to you means I would have lost a potential client so you better hurry up,” she demands as we move to a better lit area near the main door of Club Forty 40 where her friends can still see her as we chat.
Satisfied that the $80 has reflected in her account *Ruth* (not her real name), explains the latest threat to their business.
“The girls who used to operate from bars and nightclubs are now a big threat because they have now joined us on the streets following the closure of these night spots. We are doing our best to protect our territory. We are saying they should wait for the nightclubs to open because that is where they should operate from” she said.
Ruth said at times they have been forced to gang up against newcomers to their territory as they cannot afford to lose their market to fellow sex workers who used to enjoy themselves in the comfort of bars and nightclubs.
“We chased away two girls last night and told them never to come back here,” says Ruth pointing to the direction where her four colleagues are standing on a street corner.
Taking notes appears to make Ruth nervous hence the decision to continue the interview without writing anything down.
“Any man with money can be my client. You can be my client, your best friend can be my client, even your father can be my client,” she says.
Ruth said most of her clients were motorists so it was easy to move to a secluded spots for a ‘quick service” in the car before being dropped off.
“I don’t like drunk clients as they are very problematic when it’s time to pay,” she says.
The Government this week ordered the closure of bars, nightclubs and beerhalls as well as other recreational facilities as part of measures to curb the spread of Covid-19 that has claimed thousands of lives globally.
Many countries have come up with a raft of measures such as strict border controls, travel bans and in some extreme cases total lockdowns in a bid to control the spread of Covid-19 which has infected more than 400 000 people worldwide.
In the streets of Bulawayo, sex workers are finding the going tough with the closure of bars and nightclubs.
Sex workers such as Ruth are finding themselves having to fend off competition from other sex workers that previously operated from bars and nightclubs.
“They used to look down upon us because we could not afford to hang around in bars and nightclubs due to lack of spending money.
“They used to enjoy themselves drinking in the bars before being hired to spend nights at lodges or clients’ homes but things have changed now,” she says.
Ruth said as workers who have over the years spent nights in the cold waiting for clients, they were more than prepared to defend their territory.
Across town, the Saturday Leisure crew observes a number of sex workers standing in a dark corner close to what appears to be a garage at corner Herbert Chitepo Street and Connaught Avenue.
One of the sex workers emerges between two broke down vehicles, apparently dusting herself off with a piece of wrapping cloth and soon after, a gentleman appears from the shadows and walks off.
The woman crosses the road to join two ladies standing close to a traffic light, which illuminates their faces.
Two streets away, another group of sex workers is moving up and down the srteet near an abandoned building but shy away and drift into dimly lit spaces when our vehicle approaches, clearly waiting to see if a potential client will emerge and start negotiating for services.
In the midst of Covid-19 pandemic when good hygiene practices is now a must, one expects all citizens to take precautionary measures such as washing hands often, wearing masks and gloves but surprisingly sex workers are not bothered as they are just after money.
Outside a popular hotel near the National Railways of Zimbabwe main station, close to a dozen sex workers are on the street soliciting for clients.
The doors to the hotel, which houses a number of bars that used to sell all types of alcohol from lagers to opaque beer, are closed and the loud music is no more.
A vendor selling boiled eggs and cigarettes near the entrance of the hotel tells the Saturday Leisure crew that following the closure of the bars, sex workers that used to operate from the bars were now on the streets looking for clients.
They were used to sitting around in the bars, drinking beer and waiting for clients to approach them for sex. Rooms in the hotel are $60 for an hour, which is paid by the client and then girls negotiate for their fee, usually 50 Rand or the equivalent in local currency.
“It’s not looking good now after the hotel was closed. As you can see, they are standing outside on the pavements waiting for clients. Some of the women are married with children so doing business in the hotel meant there is less risk of being spotted by family members or neighbors,” says the vendor.
So brazen are the sex workers milling around the pavements that they openly solicit for sex from passing men. What is disturbing is that the sex workers seem to have thrown caution to the wind when it comes to taking measures to curb the spread of Covid-19.
Preferred operating spaces are dark places.
In 2016, the Bulawayo City Council accused sex workers of vandalising street lights to create darkness that favoured their flesh-peddling trade. A local councillor said he was disheartened when lights were vandalised by sex workers shortly after being repaired. The Chronicle