Zimbabwe Women’s Resource Centre and Network (ZWRCN) and Katswe Sisterhood organised a gender and development (GAD) talk as one of their activities to commemorate this year’s 16 days of Activism against Gender Based Violence. This talk focused on gender based violence against women who are experiencing violence in places they call home, but which homes are not the conventional structures with 4 walls, a door, windows and roof. These women live and work on the streets. They are homeless women and commercial sex workers. The streets are their homes. We never give much thought to the lives of women who live and work on the streets and sure enough many of you reading this haven’t either; except perhaps in a judgmental way. We judge them, we never give thought to their realities, the reasons that led them onto the street, the things they go through on a day to day basis, and the nature of the lives they lead on the street.
At this talk women living on the streets made their voices heard. Commercial sex workers told their stories of abuse at the hands of family members which forced them to run away from home and end up on the streets. They talked of how they were forced into prostitution; without an education and no skills they had no choice. They also talked about the extreme violence they suffer at the hands of their clients, but also violence perpetrated against them by the police. Four young homeless women in their late teens, two of them pregnant and one with a small child also spoke about their experiences. This included abuse at home, being orphaned, living on the street and trying to find males to offer them protection in exchange for sex. They also talked about violence at the hands of the police when the police claim to be ‘cleaning up’ the streets.
The police are supposed to provide a safe place for victims to turn to when they are violated, but in Zimbabwe they are the perpetrators. The women spoke about rape within police cells and sex in exchange forrelease when they are arrested for soliciting. They cannot negotiate with the police for safe sex and they have nowhere to report to when they are raped by the police; after all it will be a sex worker’s word against that of the police officer. Who is more likely to be believed? The police have become a law unto themselves and impunity is the order of the day. The circumstances in which these women find themselves make them more vulnerable because they are said to have consented to sex with any man by virtue of the fact that they are sex workers and/or homeless. This is not the case as every woman has the right to choose her sexual partner(s). The police should be enforcing this right not violating it.
Listening to these stories elicited extreme sadness in me and to a certain extent shame. These things are happening every day in our country but nothing is being done about it. No one is challenging the situation because to speak in solidarity with sex workers makes you one of them in the eyes of society. One thing that stands out is the need for genuine sisterhood in the women’s movement. Let us not be elitist in our support, homeless women and commercial sex workers are no worse than the rest of us. Their circumstances have forced them to make these difficult choices. The bottom line should be the simple fact that they are also women in need.
It was stated at this talk that the time for talking and writing petitions and research papers is over, let us all act against violence, especially when it is perpetrated against vulnerable individuals such as homeless women and commercial sex workers!