by Boetumelo Julianne Nyasulu
With the patriarchal structures, deteriorating economic state, and constrained employment opportunities within Zimbabwean society, comes an issue that Laura Agustin describes as the “conundrum of agency” within sex work. That is, the tension and challenges that emerge between force and choice in work in the sex industry. Eurocentric notions of agency understand it as “the ability to embrace one’s projects wholeheartedly [with] evidence that one is not being subjected to undue pressure – that one’s choices are authentic and one’s consent real” (Madhok, Phillips & Wilson 2013, 8). The problem with the Eurocentric definition is its construction of a binary relationship between the absence and presence of agency. This binary creates a language of losers and winners within agency, and places the concept in a measuring cup approach – where the more agency one holds reduces the space for coercion. The determinants and challenges faced in the Zimbabwean sex industry teeter sex workers positionality on the interface between coercion and agency. This post examines these determinants and challenges, demonstrating that sex work in Zimbabwe cannot be adequately understood as either agency or coercion. Rather, an analysis of agency that occurs within varying degrees of coercion and constraint is needed.
The high level of stigmatization and resentment towards the sex industry that exists transnationally, combined with Zimbabwe’s gendered history is why the constitutional court ruling regarding sex work in 2015 came as a shock to many. The High Court prevented the prosecution of nine women who had been arrested on charges of prostitution without supporting evidence of them soliciting male customers. The Zimbabwean Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) defended the women using Zimbabwe’s ratified constitution to outline two basic rights: the right to personal liberty and, as all persons are equal before the law, the right to equal opportunities in political economic and social spheres. For many, the banning of these arrests came to be understood as decriminalizing prostitution, and set off country-wide debates around selling sex. These debates on whether sex work should be decriminalized on the basis of equal rights and choice to enter a certain economic sphere demonstrated the continued urgency of interrogating dominant understandings of agency.
Photo credit: @contentpixie
Agency and its socio-economic context
Like any nation, Zimbabwe’s current gender and social relations have been shaped by its histories. Notions of honor and shame were, and still are, stark in Zimbabwe as society upholds cultural norms around sexuality that are gendered and informed by power relations such as values of feminine chastity and sacred motherhood. In the sphere of work, prior to its independence in 1980, Zimbabwe’s social policies under the British colonial administration dictated gendered labor through zvitupa (pass laws) that limited economic mobility, encouraging men’s work in the mines and women’s in subsistence farming and dictating where each gender could live, work and travel. Domestication of women can be traced back to this time as travel restrictions often confined them in rural areas away from the towns. While men were encouraged to partake in wage work or travel, women were often relegated to the domestic sphere or a category of work that would not require mobility. The gendered organization of labor gave women few options for work often characterized by low wages and long hours. As the capitalist economy expanded, needs for commodities increased and intensified the demand for men’s work in the mines. As men traveled for work in the mines they were generally separated from their families for long periods of time; often those women left without their husbands for these periods would engage in sexual relations in need of economic support for themselves or their families. Similarly, those women in the areas around the mines that encountered men without their families would engage in sexual relations for economic means. Despite an increase in sexual relations as well as the demand for it, women who engaged in these temporary liaisons were often condemned, with discrimination and sexism under the patriarchal society on the rise. Negative terms such as “pfami” and “hure” for prostitution emerged in the local language delegating the sex worker as “prostitute” – a woman with deviant sexuality to be denigrated.
Since this time, economic fluctuations, poverty and monetary system changes in Zimbabwe were largely influential on entry into and continued participation in sex work. Positive fluctuations not only correlated to increased affordability to purchase sex on the part of clients, but also to increased drinking behavior that coincided with increased demand for sex. In 2006, a notable time known as the “Chiadzwa period” marked discoveries of diamonds in the Marange fields of the Chiadzwa area. The wealth gain was enormous and bolstered the sex industry by increasing prices as well as demand. The mass gains created a formidable monetary incentive within sex work that attracted not only single but also married women. The industry attracted many women owing to the high earning potential of the time. Many Zimbabwean sex workers reported the benefits of their work through the financial independence it brings and the possibility to make fast money, unlike with other jobs.
In 2008, economic crisis hit the nation as both the political and economic state of the country resulted in the GDP contracting by almost 50%, which coincided with a poverty rate of 72%. Additionally, hyperinflation resulted in the loss of the local currency with subsequent dollarization of the monetary system. The economic shock was felt most by Zimbabwean women who occupied the majority of informal work sectors that suffered losses. Women already in precarious economic conditions found themselves in situations of financial desperation. These women suffered from intersectional subordination – a combined discrimination as a result of their gender, race, and class – featuring intricate links between lack of social welfare, extreme poverty, and lack of skills for higher-paying jobs all under Zimbabwe’s patriarchal culture. With the economic decline, demand for sex reduced significantly and became predictable, centred on client paydays or weekends. Bars that were previously frequented by clients, which proved to be the ideal location for sex workers that combined drinking with a wider audience for business, emptied as clients struggled to earn money in the new economic environment.
In consideration of the economic decline, agency took on a nuanced meaning – on the one hand women were faced with constrained choices for work, whilst on the other hand sex work was chosen as an occupation within the constrained choices. Faced with the changing economic environment, many sex workers took to developing new strategies for securing business as well as receiving alternative forms of payment. With the challenges of hyperinflation and low funds many sex workers chose to receive credit-based arrangements, where a client would pay at a future time, or would receive commodities in place of money. Additionally, recognizing the context of their work, many sex workers created subtle bodily or linguistic strategies to attract clients that would not overstep the culturally normalized relations between men and women that inhibit women from directly propositioning men. While owing to the economic crises sex work may very well be the only possible escape route for many Zimbabwean women, they take part in acts of renegotiation within the job and with their own social identities.
Examining a history of the structural challenges facing Zimbabwean women, sex work largely appears as the “feminization of survival”. Uneven effects of the economy, government debt and lack of social resources coupled with high unemployment disproportionately affected women and drove their needs for alternative forms of survival. Economic need is shown to be decisive for participation in sex work, especially in a context like that of Zimbabwe’s during economic crises where there was a reduction in traditional forms of profit, reduction in work opportunities for men, and overall fall in government revenue. Within this context alternative forms of profit were imperative and owing to the precarity of the economy, sex work as a circuit of profit often fell on the backs of women as a means of survival obscuring the boundaries between the job being a desire versus a need and with that, the boundaries between coercion and agency.
Coercion and constraint in sex work
The intersection of disease and sex work in Zimbabwe produces a complex stage for negotiations between coercion and agency. Statistics from 2016 show that 1.3 million people in Zimbabwe live with HIV AIDS and that 57.1% of sex workers in the country are living with HIV. The sex worker population of Zimbabwe actually holds a rate of HIV prevalence that is 10 to 20 times higher than that of the general population. Circumstances of the job have led to higher rates of HIV, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), rape, and other health issues amongst the sex worker population but owing to the stigma attached to the job access to health services often proves difficult, if not impossible. The structural constraints that arise from the combination of the nation’s criminalization of the work with the overall patriarchal culture often produce and propagate the violence and health risks the sex workers are confronted with. Treatment in health institutions is often denied upon knowledge of the individual being a sex worker and several workers reported even their families being denied access on account of their work. Discriminatory treatment within hospitals often excludes sex workers, contributing to a form of “self-stigma” and forcing many to put money towards private health care services, self-treatment, or traditional remedies. Consequently, sex workers are often caught in a discourse of blame as the rising HIV rates are often attributed to them as they are stigmatized as “reservoirs of sexually transmitted disease”. They are then subject to a form of double-stigma in the nation – that of the job they have and the possibility of the diseases they may carry. The criminalization of sex work in the country has contributed to an attitude of acceptability for the discrimination, abuse, and humiliation of sex workers.
The stigma and stereotypes of sex work that are perpetuated under the criminalized system in Zimbabwe leads to an extensive form of surveillance and regulation by police authorities. Police arrests are often made after confirmation of the presence of a condom on a loitering individual, at which point the individual is either arrested or the condom confiscated. Police are also known to destroy institutions started by sex workers that distribute free condoms, increasing the difficulty for sex workers to practice safe sex. Spaces of sex-work become transformed into a modern-day panopticon as their own practices of safe sexual health and safe-guarding of their body becomes monitored and controlled. Many are forced to choose between arrest, detention and harassment from police or unsafe sex with many choosing the latter to avoid additional challenges on the job. The economic challenges of the country often compound on and reveal the lack of bargaining power of the sex workers within their own job domain. This constraint on their ability to act sheds light on a restrictive sense of agency the Zimbabwean sex worker may face.
Owing to the illegal nature of the job in Zimbabwe, sex workers often find themselves in a precarious position where their clients take advantage of them or exploit them as property that has been bought. On the job, many are faced with submitting to requests for no condoms. This may occur through a direct refusal for the use of condoms by the client, or by a willingness to pay a higher price; either way, the sex worker is placed in a predicament; data shows that the poorer the sex worker, the more likely condom use would be at a low. Sex workers have often recounted experiences with clients where they are beaten, roughly handled or even gang-raped by both clients and police authorities. Police abuse, bribery and blackmail have also been widely noted as an ever-present challenge in the life of sex workers in Zimbabwe. Many have noted the futility of reporting abuse or violations to the police owing to the attitude amongst the police force that often leads to a general absence of impunity or at times even further abuse. This cycle reproduces their hyper-visibility in instances of criminalization but invisibility in instances of justice or human rights. Essentially, the institutional and structural forms of regulation in the nation create challenges for the sex workers and also contribute and hold them accountable for their own marginalization.
The challenges that Zimbabwean sex workers are confronted with in the criminalized context of the country intersect between police harassment, violence, and exposure to HIV that seem to be better managed with age but nonetheless affect the sex work industry as a whole. While the Zimbabwean sex workers do their best to work the changing conditions to their advantage they also face a plethora of challenges in a context where sex work is still criminalized. Zimbabwean law is directed towards the arrest and prosecution of the sex worker rather than the client owing to legal definitions that emphasize a focus on the prostitute. Thus under its patriarchal society, while prostitution involves the consent of two parties, only one becomes a “victim of the law”.
The constitution court hearing of 2015 sparked more conversation in Zimbabwe around sex work but did not lead to any formal changes in legislation or decriminalization. Current legislation that creates a binary of good and bad also perpetuates a discourse that renders sex workers responsible and deserving of their mistreatment. The structural, institutional, and individual constraints placed upon sex workers that contribute to their marginalization create a complex perspective on their agency. The feminization of poverty that places women globally in characteristically low-paying low-status jobs creates conditions of complex agency in several forms of employment. However, the power relations, forms of structural violence and institutionally propagated stigma of the Zimbabwean sex industry compound upon the inequalities that sex workers face.
It is the economic realities of the Zimbabwean nation and the illegality of sex work that combine to produce a constrained sense of agency amongst the sex workers; one that recognizes the structural and economic conditions that coerced women into the position of sex work but also one that allows acts of resistance and strategies of survival once in that position. The complexity of this “conundrum of agency” allows for a conversation around the continuum rather than dichotomy of agency and coercion and the context within compounding axes of oppression – of race, class, sex and others. In essence, agency becomes tied to a broader picture of an individual acting or resisting within a poor economic constellation, a stigmatized society, exclusive health care system and gendered labor force. The Zimbabwean case study of sex work encourages a recognition that agency can’t fall on the Eurocentric equation to power – that in reality agency is messy and intricate and intersectional; especially within sex work. As Madhok, Phillip and Wilson suggest in their volume on Coercion and Agency, agency is to be understood on a continuum where “agency is always exercised within constraints, that inequality is an ever-present component, and that the constraints relate to social, not just personal, power relations” (2013, 7).
 In Zimbabwe, sex work is seen as both immoral and a crime outlined in section 81(2) of its Constitution and charges are referred to as “prostitution” in court.
Boetumelo Julianne Nyasulu is a Malawian-South African writer with life experiences accumulated across three different continents – Africa, North America and Europe. She’s a dynamic young professional interested in all things social justice, with over six years’ experience in development work. She’s got avid, incurable wanderlust that’s taken her to places far and wide with an insatiable desire to know more, do more and be more. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.