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Sexual stereotypes not helping Aids fight

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What many see as a sudden crackdown on women in Harare’s CBD by police accusing them of loitering for the purposes of prostitution actually dates back to as early as 1983 according to local researchers working on the link between prostitution and HIV/Aids.

In June 2, 1983, the police launched Operation Chinyanda/Scorpion, where hundreds of women were rounded up on allegations of prostitution.

After a long hiatus, another operation was launched on March 2, 2007 where the systematic arrest of women was intensified.

Four years later, Operation Keep Your Dignity was launched in January 2011, with the following year, in December 2012, seeing Operation Dyira Bonus Kumba where women became the target of a crackdown that was supposed to keep men in their homes to spend their end-of-year bonuses with their families not prostitutes!

Sounds silly, but researchers working with sex workers in Harare and Nyamapanda say the fact that this is an operation sanctioned at the highest level of law enforcement misses the point of addressing the core structural issues that have forced women to the streets in the first place, beyond even interrogating if those arrested in these operations are indeed prostitutes.

Yet the irrationality of these sweeps on women points to failed methodologies in understanding and addressing women’s economic imperatives and opportunities, researchers argue.

But not only that, an unapologetically patriarchal society has skewed the sexual power dynamics where men do the labeling, and every single or unmarried woman, becomes a prostitute because they are found in the CBD during hours when married women are in their homes!

A story was narrated about how cops swooped on a block of flats in Harare’s CBD arresting every female on site and barged into an apartment where a man and his wife were watching telly. The cops allegedly dragged the woman to the waiting Black Maria amid protests from the husband.

But because this is Zimbabwe where citizens have no recourse to litigate against the State, that was the end of the story. All the couple had was bitterness against the system after the wife was released.

It has become laughable how cops carry out their duties, and with the issue of arresting all women seen in the CBD after hours, it has raised yet another disturbing trend where women have become very open to abuse, local researchers allege.

After Operation No Loitering was launched in February this year, followed by Operation Amai Ngwenya in July, then Operation Zvanyanya now carried about by an all-female cops crack unit, complaints that emerged centred on the sexual abuse of these females (whether prostitutes or not) by arresting officers.

It is a good thing that the ZRP has acted on these reports, and it is just one of many reports seen across the world where police demand sex from prostitutes in exchange for their freedom.

And that is yet another HIV/Aids hotspot. Do these males in positions of power use condoms, are these females in any position (pardon the pun) to negotiate/demand condom use when it is their freedom at stake?

Yet in all these operations, researchers are asking: has this worked to curb the spread of HIV/Aids and succeeded in creating “a morally upright” society as the prudes would put it?

One female contributor put it bluntly and said prostitution will always be around whether we like it or not so get used it!

Yet despite that blunt truth, what remains obvious is that there remains very little being done to protect sex workers, be it from STIs or physical/sexual violence.

Small wonder then that there were gasps last year when one MP dared the prudes and called for legalizing the operations of what she rather stupidly called “pleasure engineers” which effectively stripped the debate of its gravity.

And with the UNTWO General Assembly almost here, it cannot be ignored that sex workers are seeing an opportunity of a lifetime, and while Walter Mzembi has said legalizing the profession is out of the question, truth is, some delegates will turn their sojourn into a sex tourism excursion of sorts.

Like one young lady suggested, instead of bashing these women with haughty claims of immorality, other countries are providing sexual health care for sex workers and in the process minimising the spread of HIV/Aids.

Perhaps instead of futile efforts to get them off the streets and encouraging them to sell tomatoes instead, the focus should move from throwing only them into filthy holding cells, but extending the crusade to clients who remain invisible in the whole narrative.

It takes two to screw right?

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