Time's up for Zim's 'kerb crawlers'

A recent crackdown on men who frequent prostitutes in Zimbabwe has left human-rights activists there a little confused.

Is the new approach a victory for those who claim that it is unfair to punish sex workers, if similar penalties are not handed down to their clients? Or is it simply a diversionary tactic by a beleaguered police force that fears it has lost credibility in the public eye?

At least 40 men have been arrested to date, together with more than 100 prostitutes in an operation launched by the Zimbabwean police last month.

Under the country’s laws, prostitutes can be fined about R32 or imprisoned for up to six months for solicitation. Now, the same sentences are being handed out to their clients under Operation No to Prostitution.

The stated goal of this campaign is to eliminate the public nuisance caused by sex workers who, according to police, are often illegal immigrants. Previously, police appeared inclined to let clients off the hook.

Men with no ready explanation for being near known pick-up spots are targeted. Rather controversially, the operation also entails planting undercover female officers to entrap so-called “kerb crawlers”. This term refers to men found along the dark, tree-lined streets that are favoured by sex workers in urban centres.

Although most of the men nabbed by police promptly pay admission-of-guilt fines to escape the glare of publicity associated with a court appearance, this has not been enough to save them from embarrassment.

The country’s two government-run daily newspapers have proved willing allies in Operation No to Prostitution, naming and shaming some of those netted in the campaign. The whole matter has elicited mixed reactions on the part of the public.

“There’s some form of gender balance as of now [in prosecuting sex workers], but to me it’s not eradicating the problem,” says Tabitha Khumalo, who heads the gender desk at the National Constitutional Assembly, a Harare-based coalition of civic groups that is pushing for a new Constitution in Zimbabwe.

Some argue that economic hardship in the country has forced many women into prostitution—and that legalising the activity would be a more humane way of dealing with them.

“Offhand, we know sex work is going up, but it’s difficult to say by how much,” says Chrispen Hahlani of the Gweru Women Aids Prevention Association, an NGO that caters for sex workers and single women in precarious situations.

Sisonke Msimang, a gender adviser at the regional support team for East and Southern Africa of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/Aids, adds: “When you bring sex work above ground you are better able to protect the women who make their living from it.”

Decriminalising sex work, she notes, also reduces the exploitation of women by pimps, the police and others. In addition, it would make prostitutes more accessible to Aids workers—no small matter in a country where official statistics put HIV prevalence at 24,6%.

Legalisation appears unlikely in the conservative environment of Zimbabwe.

Yet, Khumalo notes: “Whether we want to accept prostitution—to formalise it—or [not], it remains informal ... We cannot eradicate it. It’s been there for years.”

Edna Masiyiwa, who heads the Women’s Action Group, an NGO, agrees.

“We are saying women are not the guilty party. If there was no market they wouldn’t continue,” she observes.

For columnist and lawyer Vote Muza, sex workers and their clients are merely easy prey for a police force viewed by some as an extension of the ruling Zanu-PF party—a force now trying to give the impression of diligence and efficiency. (Police officials contacted by IPS would not comment on these allegations)

“What is wrong if a sane male proposes love to any female he meets in a public place?” Muza asks.

If police are acting with an eye to public relations, the move may backfire, warns Arnold Tsunga, who heads Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, an NGO. Authorities will not increase their credibility by targeting vulnerable groups like sex workers, he says.

While prostitution is not legal in any of Zimbabwe’s neighbouring states, police in these countries appear to focus more on the suppliers of the service than those who use it.

Colleen Lowe Morna, executive director of the Johannesburg-based resource centre GenderLinks, says: “It’s interesting that the police [in Zimbabwe] are also targeting clients ... That is not usual.”

But, she adds: “Crackdowns of this sort are artificial. They are usually done for the publicity: they are hypocritical, and they achieve little. They certainly don’t do much to advance the cause of women’s rights.”—IPS

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