For 13-year-old Mercy Tawenga (not her real name) life changed when she lost her parents and ended up staying with a distant relative at Durlstone farming area, Macheke area, Murehwa District, in Mashonaland East Province.
Mercy says she is now three months pregnant after she was forced into prostitution becoming one of the child prostitutes who frequent mostly makeshift or backyard bars in Macheke.
This is not a unique case for this area but across the country where young girls are forced into prostitution by circumstances which include loss of parents and poverty.
While the two reasons mentioned above are not tickets or a stamp of approval for the girl child who should be in school and enjoying the love of parents in the comfort of their homes — it is now common cause that there is a surge in child prostitution, forced or otherwise, across the country from mining areas, farms, growth points and even in towns and cities.
But at the end of it all, adolescent pregnancy has huge psycho-social, economic and health consequences including emotional stress, low self-esteem, dropping out of school, expulsion from school, stigmatisation of single mothers, forced marriage, promiscuity, abandonment, unsafe abortions, suicide, poverty, and negative health outcomes for both the mother and baby.
In this case Mercy, a Grade Six dropout — is now HIV-positive at that tender age and is one of the many people coming from the farming communities around Durlstone Primary School, Macheke area for National Aids Council (Nac) HIV intervention programmes which target specific key-population groups, among them sex workers, truck drivers, artisanal miners, adolescent girls and young women.
From this school, the nearest clinic is 15km away, thus at Macheke or 15 to 20km at Nhowe Mission, a distance that also discourages members of this community from seeking health care.
“My parents died when I was about 11 years old. They were farm workers and after their burial I moved in with one of our distant relatives at the farm. The living conditions were so bad that I opted to join some young girls and go into prostitution than live with this relative who didn’t care about me. To me prostitution was better because I could make my own money — though little but I could decide for myself what to eat and to wear and not to rely on someone,” said Mercy.
She said some clients would demand unprotected sex and she would accept and charge an extra amount for the high risk she got herself into and the next thing she was pregnant and HIV positive.
“I accepted my status and have even joined a Sister to Sister community group started by the Nac to find support and comfort. However, what I know is what is done is done and the only thing I can do is adopt a positive mind and start eating and living a healthy life. Right now I don’t know the status of by baby. I will only get to know after giving birth,” she said.
She said there was also an acute shortage of medication which includes STI pills — a development that results in recurrence of STI infections among ladies of the night.
Mashonaland East Province, according to latest Nac statistics has a high positivity rate as high as 38 percent especially among farming communities in which Mercy and hundreds of girls live in.
This is a negative development attributed to early child marriages, prostitution, interchanging of sexual partners and artisanal mining in the province.
Nac Mashonaland East Province manager Dr Wifred Dube said the positivity rate was as high as 38 percent in farming communities.
“We have noted that there is high positivity rate in farming communities in Mashonaland East Province. Studies have shown that a woman can divorce from her husband and move in to the house next door and that is a common trend. At the same time they interchange partners without even knowing their HIV status. The positivity rate is even as high as 38 percent as compared to key populations such as in sex workers,” he said.
Dr Dube said one of the challenges bedevilling the HIV intervention programme was recurrence of STIs due to shortages of drugs in the province.
“The quality of STIs treatment is not up to scratch. Most clinics in the marginalised areas do not have adequate drugs to cure STIs. Due to drug shortages, there can be recurrences of STIs. So, the greatest challenge is STI management,” he said.
And in response to HIV and Aids, Dr Dube said Nac was working in partnership with the Health ministry and partners to help bring HIV services to marginalised communities, including farming communities.
Nac — he said — had also intensified the presence of night clinics in Murehwa, Mutoko, Nyamapanda Border Post, Makaha, Mudzi and in artisanal mining communities.
The night clinics, he said, were manned by nurses with specialised training in handling key populations such as truck drivers.
“The night clinics are at the usual Government clinics but open at night and are manned by trained nurses who can handle ladies of the night, children as young as 12 who are involved in prostitution or are pregnant. During the day nurses can become motherly and that chases away the children or this key population in need of HIV and Aids services. These clinics are now very popular in the province,” he said.