Teenage sex workers in Zimbabwe are being blamed for a spike in the number of HIV/Aids infections by failing to use condoms.
The south African country’s economic turnaround, coinciding with the festive season has seen a boom in the sector and frequent city night clubs. But condom use among teenage prostitutes is sparse.
While they may be aware of the risks they are not in a position to negotiate with clients who are ready to pay higher fees for unprotected sex.
"I have a steady client and we have since ceased using condoms," said one teenage commercial sex worker who only gave her name as Tasha.
"What use is it anyway? If I insist on condoms he will simply look for someone else to spend his money on," she told Inter Press news service.
She was not alone. "If you are concerned about HIV/Aids, you stay home,” said another sex worker, who said her name was Beyonce. "While it has been suggested that sex workers carry condoms in their purses to offer their clients, Beyonce said carrying condoms in her handbag is ‘un-ladylike.’ "Imagine if my mother found condoms in my purse?"
Zimbabwe has the world’s fourth-highest rate of HIV and has been struggling with a food emergency and the sharpest rises in child death rates in history, according to figures from the United Nations Children’s Fund. A quarter of the population is HIV-positive; more than half of all new infections are among young people, mostly girls.
Despite the drop in Aids rates in Zimbabwe over the past the few years, the 15-19 year old age group, in particular, still remains highly exposed to HIV infection, according to the United Nations. Young women are high risk because they are more vulnerable and susceptible to HIV infection biologically, economically and culturally than men, the agency says.
Zimbabwe is one of several countries in southern Africa where multiple partners are still viewed as a norm, especially among men, and researchers say this has stoked the spread of HIV/Aids.
"The fact that these young girls have chosen this as a way of life means they have no bargaining clout, as the sex is always with older clients who tend to prefer young prostitutes based on the belief they are Aids-free," said HIV counsellor Patricia Moyo.
"I talk to many young girls living with HIV and the stories they tell are the same: they could not tell their partners anything about condom use. These are girls who already know the consequences but because of their economic circumstances throw caution to the wind," Ms Moyo said.