The HIV/AIDS Catastrophe in Zimbabwe

Eugene Soros, contributing editor, Harare, Zimbabwe, September 23, 2004

A young Zimbabwean woman

A young Zimbabwean woman who was raped by militia men, impregnated and contaminated with HIV, at a press conference on September 5, 2003. (Photo: Alexander Joe/AFP-Getty Images)

Beitbridge is a border town on the road between Harare, Zimbabwe, and Johannesburg, South Africa. A steady stream of traffic passes through it, giving rise to a brisk exchange of smuggled goods and casual sex.

In Beitbridge, as elsewhere in Zimbabwe, people take a casual approach to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, despite the devastating impact it has had on the country. Two million people have contracted the virus, and almost a million children have been orphaned due to AIDS. But in Beitbridge, business and sex go hand in hand. Even with HIV/AIDS warnings everywhere, it seems that many people could not care less.

As the shortage of basic commodities worsens, women are forced to engage in sex for preferential treatment in the purchase of restricted goods. This happens not only between Zimbabweans but also between Zimbabweans and their foreign business partners (often cross-border traders), who can ensure access to basic commodities. Sex and money are exchanged to solidify business relations and to secure expeditious service.

“People are quite aware of HIV/AIDS, yet they are being forced by circumstances to engage in risky behavior, and sex is increasingly becoming a livelihood and strategy for men and women,” says the Poverty Reduction Forum (PRF) of Zimbabwe.

In a recently published report, Redirecting Our Response to HIV/AIDS:The war For Survival, it was found that the exchange of sex for transportation had become a common practice among cross-border traders.

In Beitbridge, some women offer sex in order to accompany truck drivers to South Africa. The women get free transportation and assistance in paying import duty and other levies. When one driver drops them off, the women offer sex to the next driver.

In Mutare, an eastern border town in Zimbabwe, smuggling goods is common and demands the use of head porters called “Matunge.” These men are preferred as porters because of their physical strength. They can carry heavy loads and walk long distances. Because female cross-border traders are said to pay the least for their smuggling services, male porters demand sex in order to make up the difference.

Sometimes demands for sex are made in order to humiliate female cross-border traders. Some male head porters even use blackmail - the threat of impounding a woman’s goods - as a way of getting sex.

“We don’t just sleep with everybody. We have trusted relationships,” says Saidi Palume, a truck driver with a South African based trucking company. “And since the relationships have blossomed I don’t mind using a condom except that it takes the pleasure out of having sex.”

Gabriel Chari, a cross-border trader, says adamantly, “hubbies [female cross-border traders] are selected wisely.” Asked if he uses protection, he says, “Oh no, a condom pushes your testicles inside. They are not good for sex, in any case, they scare your partner.”

Rodrick Mapere, a cab driver, says that women who need transportation are in a situation where a lot of drivers will capitalize on their need and demand sex in return for a ride.

“It seems like drivers are doing them a favor when it’s actually their right to get to certain places at the right time,” he says.

In addition to the economic crisis, civil conflicts have increased the incidents of rape and intimidation of women, and facilitated the spread of HIV/AIDS.  Kenneth, a youth trained at a Zanu-PF youth terror camp during the 2002 presidential elections, says that in their nightly raids of the houses of opposition party supporters, it was considered wise for youths to indulge in sex to belittle and instill fear in the womenfolk.

“It was an instruction not clearly given but a method used often with the team leader’s blessing,” he says.

Kenneth narrates a typical experience as a youth: “One day we entered a village and flogged men and boys and took their women, whom we later raped in front of their husbands and in-laws.”

He says such incidents are common even today- a claim supported by others. And there are stories about the youths commonly known as the “Green Bombers” or “Terror Kids” raping women on the pretext that they were opposition party supporters.

Some women disappeared without a trace. Those who survived are too shocked or ashamed to talk about their experience. Most Zimbabwean officials remain tight-lipped about the violent situation.

For many years, a wall of silence protected most African leaders. Now this wall of silence protects governments, communities, husbands and wives, teachers and students, boyfriends and girlfriends, explains Urban Johnsson, regional director of UNICEF, Southern Africa.

“These walls hinder necessary development and information. These walls must be removed in any successful fight against HIV/AIDS,” he says.

Johnsson contends, however, that where the wall of silence has been removed, it has too often been replaced by the use of soft language to explain the abuse of women. Sexual violence against women - rape - is called nonconsensual sex. Male lust and power is described as high-risk sexual behavior. Such soft language breeds hypocrisy and builds a wall between words and reality.

The current situation in Zimbabwe threatens the entire region. Preliminary results from recent vulnerability assessments by FOSENET, a Zimbabwean civic monitoring program, show an increase of nearly one million in the number of people who are vulnerable to HIV/AIDS. Most of them reside in Zimbabwe.

Civil conflicts and the HIV/AIDS pandemic dominate the lives of people in Sub- Saharan Africa. Both are devastating and kill too many people. Last year, armed conflict killed some 3,400,000 people. AIDS killed 34 million.

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