BULAWAYO, Zimbabwe (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – On a sunny morning in the central business district of Zimbabwe’s second city Bulawayo, 14-year-old Tapiwa is basking in the sunlight on a busy pavement.
After running away from his abusive stepmother last year, Tapiwa turned to sex work to earn a living on the streets.
He is one of the rising number of homeless children in a nation crippled by a cash crunch that has led to shortages of fuel and price hikes of basic necessities.
Child rights’ groups said the sexual abuse of underage girls was widely discussed but to date little attention had been given to the boys caught up in the sex trade to survive.
Gay sex is illegal in Zimbabwe, carrying a prison sentences of up to three years, but non-governmental organisations (NGOs) said reports of rising numbers of underage boys selling themselves on the streets were rife.
“There is a brothel on 12th Avenue here in the city where my friends and I solicit for sex in exchange for money,” Tapiwa told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding his clients usually paid $10 for 30 minutes.
Zimbabwean parliamentarian Ncube Siphiwe, a senator for Bulawayo Metropolitan province, said the authorities were aware of this trend, with abandoned beer halls converted into unofficial venues for sex work.
“Of course, we know what is happening in the city … we don’t support this as leaders and parents because it makes children lead a bad life,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Bulawayo City Council spokesman Nesisa Mpofu confirmed the authority has leased unused beer halls to the community for businesses and had no say on how tenants ran those places.
“We are not aware of the 12th Avenue brothel but that should be reported to the Zimbabwe Republic Police,” she said, adding that this would now be investigated.
Sikholiwe Ncube, programmes officer at the Bulawayo-based Thuthuka Street Children’s Home, said the nation’s economic crisis has forced more children onto the streets, leaving them vulnerable.
After suffering from decades of decline, Zimbabwe is also facing a drought and devastation from Cyclone Idai that has further dashed hopes that the economy will quickly recover in the wake of the downfall of Robert Mugabe in a coup in 2017.
Historic data on the number of children living rough is scarce but the Social Welfare Department estimated Zimbabwe in 2017 had more than 4,700 children working and living on the streets of major cities Harare, Mutare, Bulawayo and Beitbridge.
“This year the number of children living on the streets of Bulawayo has risen due to the economic meltdown in the country. Children as young as 10 years are on the streets,” Ncube said.
Thuthuka Street Children’s home estimated there were between 150 and 250 street children in Bulawayo’s city centre, eking out a living mainly by begging while some engaged in criminal activities and others ended up in the sex trade.
This put them at risk of HIV with the southern African country having one of the world’s largest HIV epidemics, with about 13% of 15-to-49-year-olds and 57% of sex workers living with the virus in 2017, according to UNAIDS.
Yet Bulawayo residents in the central business district have little sympathy for street children.
“They are a nuisance,” Nigel Matupire, a local shop owner told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “Every day I clean up their mess in front of my shop door.”
Selling sex has become a daily reality for Munashe, 15, from Mberengwa District in Zimbabwe’s central heartlands.
“I come from a very poor background and I lost both parents then I decided to come to Bulawayo to look for a better life,” Munashe told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on a street corner.
Initially, he travelled to South Africa where he said he lived under a bridge until someone told him about the sex trade.
“I laughed at the idea that men pay for sex with us until he one day (took) me to his clients. But life was tough at that point,” he said.
He said he moved back to Bulawayo after the South African police started to crackdown on homeless people and at first begged before moving into the sex trade.
“I get a lot of money from the sex trade to survive in the streets,” Munashe said.
Danai Chirawu, a lawyer at the Zimbabwe Women Lawyers Association (ZWLA), said children under 16 cannot consent to sex under the law but there were some grey areas.
Heterosexual sex between a man over the age of 16 and a girl between the ages of 12 and 15 is legal if the girl consented while sexual intercourse between a girl below the age of 12 and a man aged over 16 is automatically classified as rape.
Sex between men or boys – of any age – is illegal but prosecutions are rare, according to a British government report that found authorities more commonly harassed LGBT+ people for loitering, indecency and public order offences.
Bulawayo’s Chief Inspector Precious Simango said there had not been any reports of underage boys in the sex trade but every police station had a special “Victim Friendly Unit” for such cases to be recorded if they did come up.
However, the Sexual Rights Centre (SRC), a non-profit organisation that supports marginalised vulnerable groups such as sex workers and the LGBT+ community in Bulawayo, said there had been an increase in the number of children in the sex trade.
“As an organisation we see that as child exploitation,” said Mojalifa Mokoele, SRC programmes officer.
“It is not sex work, it is exploitation of minors and children into sex work. This is something that we speak against as an organisation.” (Reporting by Lungelo Ndhlovu @Luxy58; Editing by Hugo Greenhalgh and Belinda Goldsmith. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)