I had occasion to catch a taxi cab to an all girls school in Harare this past weekend. As we got to the gate of one of the school hostels, the chatty cab driver made a shocking revelation.
“I know this place very well,” he said .
School run with a difference
“I used to come here to pick up school girls. It would be late at night and they would be waiting for me close to the gate. Then I would drop them off at the clubs and hotels and lodges then wait for them and return them to the gate in the early hours of the morning.”
Harare’s dark underbelly
Where did these girls in boarding school meet these well-heeled men? Who arranged the pick up times and other details, I wanted to know.
“There are pimps all over town. They might stand in the streets like they are selling something but they are really pimps. The girls know the pimps who set them up with the rich men for a commission. Sometimes the young girls are just delivered to a dark hotel room where they have sex with a man whose face they don’t really see so they can never recognise him when he appears on TV or in the paper,” I was told.
The cab driver said although the money was good, his conscience got to him.
“It just didn’t feel right. These girls could be my sisters. Maybe I would marry one of them, not these particular ones, but other girls who would have been abused by rich men like this. So I just told my clients that I could not do it anymore.
“Vakachechema (they begged me to reconsider) and even offered me more money, but I was not interested. They were worried about getting a different guy because you need discretion for such deals,” he said.
The driver went on to tell me that the practice of pimping young girls is rife in Harare. He said the owner of a modelling agency had also been in the game, offering her models to the highest bidder.
“She hooked up models with ministers and other high level people. But she dropped our group when one of us became a blabber mouth.”
It’s not just the girls
He told me that it was not just about young girls and older men as young men were also being paid for sex by some older women – what young people call Ben 10s. I asked him if had ever spoken to the young people involved and tried to find out what their motivation was. He laughed at my stupid naivety.
“Money, of course. These kids just cannot accept that there is something that that their parents cannot afford. It might be a pair of jeans, a mobile phone or maybe even something more sensible like food, fees and accommodation for tertiary institute students. But the bottom line is that it is all about money.”
As I waited for the matron in the reception room, I could not stop thinking about it as I watched the sweet, innocent-seeming young girls stream past me with smiles and polite greetings. Were these the same characters who would turn into vamps once darkness descended?
It would be all too easy to judge and call the young people misguided. I could preach about how that ripped pair of jeans is just not worth it as it is a passing fad. But is it really that simple? What about the young person who is prostituting themselves for basics because the adults who should be doing that are negligent, lack capacity or are dead? With such a poor social safety net, how else are they going to survive?
For me the tragedy here is that most probably few of these young people make up their minds to become commercial sex workers and they would be horrified at that label. I think they just drift into it without really considering the implications.
Teen prostitution – the cons
And what are those implications? The first one is HIV, of course. Even with the medication available these days and the hope for a cure being dangled before us, no one can claim that it is easy to live with HIV. The other one is unplanned and unwanted pregnancies for the young girls. They run the risk of disrupting their studies or endangering their very lives through illegal abortions. There is also cervical cancer which is linked to early sexual activity and STIs.
But one the other side you have something whose attraction I cannot dismiss; money. Who of us does not want more money on any given day of the week? For young people, it is great to be trendsetter or to just fit in with everyone else and having a lot of money is the way to do it. Virginity is no longer an issue and it is not as if there is a limited number of times that you can have sex so where is harm, I imagine the young people telling themselves, if they think about it at all.
There is no easy answer here. I guess all I can say is that it takes strong moral fibre for any person –young or old – to realise that they are not defined by their material possessions, but by their character. One has to have the confidence in one’s own ability to have a vision for the future and know exactly how one is going to get there.