Teenagers turn to sex work to escape grinding poverty

Teenagers turn to sex work to escape grinding poverty

By Inhlase reporters

Eswatini’s depressed economy and government’s inability to ease poverty levels is leaving many young women with little choice but to become sex workers. While earning a living from sex work is illegal in the conservative kingdom, studies also confirm that an increasing number of under-age girls are prostituting themselves for as little as E30 to clients who should then be charged with rape because minor children are legally unable to consent to sex.

A 2020 study published in the PLOS one scientific journal showed that of the 325  female sex workers surveyed, 64 (20%) were younger than 20 years old while 83 (26%) started to sell sex when they were younger than 18 years old in order to escape poverty.

Seventeen-year old Thobile Ximba * is once such under age sex worker and has been for about two years. In an interview with Inhlase she explained that her first sexual encounter at the age of 15 was with a South African ‘client’.

 “The guy was between the ages of 25 – 30 years. I was too drunk to remember what happened on that day” says Ximba who turned to sex work after she and her siblings were abandoned by their mother. She explains how her mother went to look for a job in the cities and never returned home. She was raised by her grandmother, who struggled to make ends meet and so Ximba turned to sex work and her elder brother to crime.

“When I was 14 years, I had a rough time at home and needed money. I grew up at Zakhele in Manzini. I had older friends, who would do this job (sex work) whereby older men with cars would pick us up and take us to fancy bars in Zulwini, Mbabane and other nice places. While we were in those places, the men would buy us drinks and give us money. And I thought this life was fine as I would go home with lots of money” adds Ximba who used to loiter near Bhunu Mall in Manzini or Mahhala in Matsapha in search of clients. But she now operates differently.

“I now work privately. Men call me directly on my phone and we meet in pubs, casinos or in any other place. Loitering on the streets in search for clients is risky as sometime police harass us,” says the young woman who makes between E1 500 and E3 000 a day.  “Well, I make a lot of money and I even go to (neighbouring) countries. But the disadvantage (of sex work) is that some people, especially women, like to judge us,” laments the teenager.

Media reports say the current wage scale for the lowly paid textile workers is E11.20 per hour which amounts to about E2 240 per month. And salaryexplorer.com  indicates that the lowest salary average is E1140 in eSwatini.

According to UNAIDS Sex workers: Population size estimate – Number, 2016, which has not been updated over the years, the number of sex workers in eSwatini was around 4,000 in 2015. The most populous and central city of Manzini, the industrial hub (Matsapha) and the resort town (Zulwini) are the epicentres for sex work in eSwatini. Though eSwatini is deeply rooted in culture, predominantly conservative and religious, sex workers are brazenly taking to the streets to prostitute themselves. Some use popular social media sites like Facebook to lure potential clients. Previous studies on sex work showed that the clients for sex workers include business people, church pastors, government officials (MPs, cabinet ministers), lawyers, lecturers, police officers, soldiers, foreigners, tourists, doctors and truck drivers.

The 2010 and 2020 studies showed that as sex work becomes more common in eSwatini, there is change in the demographics of sex workers. A decade ago, sex workers in eSwatini were predominantly uneducated young women in low-paying jobs in the textile factory shells around Matsapha. This has changed to include young women in tertiary education institutions.  

Female tertiary students were forced into sex trade after government significantly slashed their personal allowances. A reliable source revealed that among the category of sex workers, there are those who are not into sex trade to make ends meet but seeking a quick buck to maintain their socialite lifestyles. The source explained that some of them found the allowance too small to maintain their high life. 

Sex work in Eswatini is illegal and largely not recognised. This makes sex workers hard to reach and sex work an “underground” activity. Inhlase interviewed four sex workers in the 16-20 age range. It was discovered that some sex workers dropped out of school while others finished school but have no means to enroll at tertiary or find something else to do with their lives. The interviewed four sex workers were motivated by poverty and lack of financial support. They shared how sex work has transformed their lives from that of begging men for money to that of providing for themselves.

Nono Gulwako* has been a sex worker for just over a year. She is only 16 years old. She lives in a children care centre. Her mother dumped her at the care centre. She does not know her father. She was introduced to sex work by a friend who used to reside at the care centre.

“This girl used to show me the money she makes from sex work then one day I asked her to show me how she makes so much money. When I arrived at her spot, every man wanted me because I was young and fresh. I couldn’t believe the money I made that day,” she recalls.

Nono says they make lots of money during Christmas and Easter holidays. She says tourists pay better compared to locals. “White people pay better. We charge them E800 per round and E1 040 for oral sex. During holidays, we can earn between E3 700 to E5 000 per week” Nono says.

*Cici Mbhokane (20) started prostituting herself 4 years ago. She was 16 years old when she began frequenting the popular sex workers spot at Ezulwini. She is unapologetic about how prostitution has transformed her life for the better.

“Sex work has transformed my life; from that of poverty to one where I’m able to put food on the table. It has made me financially stable and independent; not to rely on my male relatives for money and food” she says.

Cici recalls that she was introduced to sex work by her elder sister, with who they reside at Mvutjini – a bustling township in Ezulwini near the capital Mbabane.

“My elder sister encouraged me to try my luck in sex work since she had been in the business for many years. She used the money she made from sex work to raise me and her son. She paid for our school fees and further provided other basic necessities,” says Cici.

Sex work is outlawed in eSwatini by the Sexual Offences and Domestic Violence (SODV) Act of 2018. Section 15 of the Act reads: “A person who procures another to engage in prostitution commits an offence and shall, on conviction, be liable to a fine not exceeding fifty thousand Emalangeni (E50 000) or to a term of imprisonment not exceeding fifteen years or both but, where the victim is a child the term of imprisonment shall not exceed twenty years without an option to pay a fine”.

The Act further provides for penalties for anyone ‘living from the earnings of prostitution’. Reads section 17 (1) of the SODV Act: “A person who lives wholly or in part on rewards, favours or compensation from the commission of sexual acts or sexual violations by another person, commits an offence and shall, on conviction, be liable to pay a fine not exceeding thirty thousand Emalangeni (E30 000) or to a term of imprisonment not exceeding ten years or both”.

Human rights lawyer, Sibusiso Nhlabatsi, who is a legal clinic principal at the University of Eswatini (UNESWA), explains that a child in terms of the SODV Act as well as the Children Protection and Welfare Act is someone below the age of 18. It means in Eswatini a person below the age of 18, a child cannot engage in any sexual activity even if she or wants to – consent is irrelevant.  

But despite the law criminalising sex work and sexual intercourse with minors, Sergeant Gcina Dlamini of Mbabane Police Station said they had not arrested anyone for commercial sex crime since 2019.

“Police do come across cases of suspected prostitution in certain areas around Mbabane but there is nothing concrete and substantial to prove such. One of the key elements of prostitution if the financial transaction entered prior or after the sexual act. Ascertaining if such has happened can be very cumbersome for police officers and investigators more so (sic) if no party has decided to open a case”, he told Inhlase.

Dlamini acknowledged that there are suspected underage girls who are found loitering the streets at night.

“(They) are taken (in) for investigation as per the Children’s Protection and Welfare Act (of 2012), where the department of social welfare is also involved” he added. Unfortunately, the director of social welfare was unavailable to comment on this matter due to his pending case in court of an alleged sexual harassment of a female colleague.

While police appear to turn a blind eye, an organisation called, Executive Director, Lungile Khumalo of the Voice of Our Voices (VOOV), which advocates for the protection of sex workers, contends that the law in eSwatini does not criminalise sex work. While the debate rages on about what the law says and means for adult sex workers or prostitutes, Khumalo acknowledges that some sex workers are teenagers who have no legal standing to consent to sex.

 “As an organization that implements sex workers programmes in the country, VOOV has some projects that are being implemented targeting (that) population (teenage sex workers). VOOV is against child exploitation. To us a child is a child (and) that’s why an underaged who engages in sex work is not called a sex worker…” Khumalo stressed.

Human rights lawyer, Nhlabatsi clarifies that the SODV law does not speak to sex work but makes reference to commercial sexual activities (exploitation) in Part III which attracts a fine of E120 000 or twenty years in prison. The SODV does not prohibit prostitution even though it defines it in the definition section.

“What the SODV does it prohibits procurements from prostitution and living off its earnings. The SODV further protects children from all sort of sexual abuse,” he says.

Meanwhile, the department of social welfare under the deputy prime minister’s office calls upon the public to report cases of teenage girls who are prostituting themselves. Principal Secretary (PS) in the deputy prime minister’s office, Melusi Masuku, expressed concern about the teenage girls involved in sex work. He said the department of social welfare has put in place several programmes aimed at assisting orphaned and vulnerable children

 “There is Free Primary Education programme for primary school children and the OVC fund for high school. There is also the Child Headed Household Farming Programme among others. The Neighborhood Care Points (NCP) programme also assists in the curbing of hunger through the provision of nutritious meals to vulnerable children,” Masuku said.

Mandisa Zwane-Machakata, country representative of SAfAIDS Eswatini, said the contributory factory to sex workers in eSwatini could be due to an increasing ‘economic divide’. “…the advent of COVID-19 and climate change shocks have worsened the situation for many of the vulnerable people. Eswatini needs to have pro-poor laws and policies that seek to shorten the economic divide between the affluent and indigent,” she noted.

She added that although SAfAIDS ‘embraces the global definition of sex work as a form of work by consenting adult persons’ sex with underage children was illegal.

 *not their real names

Related post