MASVINGO, Zimbabwe — Girls as young as 10 in a Zimbabwean transit camp are trading sex for food, causing a worrying spike in sexually transmitted infections and prompting international scrutiny.
The Chingwizi camp in Masvingo houses more than 12,000 people who were displaced by mass flooding in February. But government officials assigned to distribute aid to residents have allegedly been demanding sexual favors in return for food.
Health officials have undertaken multiple sexual health awareness campaigns, but these efforts have not had any appreciable effects. Instead, officials measured an increase in STI cases from 200 to 310 over the course of the month, with a majority of victims being teenage girls.
One hundred girls have also become pregnant and dropped out of school.
Girls and women are falling prey to prostitution in order to try to support their families’ rations and basic necessities.
“We cannot just watch as our children are dying of hunger,” said one victim. “We need food hence we are prepared to sell our bodies for sex in order to survive.”
Justice for Children Trust, a Zimbabwean nonprofit organization, has challenged camp authorities to investigate the disturbing claims. One government official stepped forward and confirmed the allegations, reporting that he was aware of colleagues engaging in food-for-sex transactions.
“They are taking advantage of desperate women and girls to solicit for sex in exchange for food, blankets, tents and other necessities. Women end up giving in to their demands to save their families from starving,” he said.
The camp requires 156,000 tons of maize meal per month to feed its residents, yet food shortages currently make this amount impossible to attain, resulting in desperation among the families.
Masvingo Provincial Affairs minister Kudakwashe Bhasikiti had to flee the camp after angry residents attacked him to protest the alleged misappropriation of funds and food aid. He has since asked for help tackling the food shortages from both the government and the private sector.
The flood victims are refusing to leave the transit camp until the government has, as promised, adequately compensated for their destroyed homes. The compensation money is necessary for many families to help them build new homes, clear land for the next planting season and keep their children in school and out of enterprises like prostitution that are common in the camp.
The current poverty level and lack of funding in the camp has left girls and women willing to do “anything” to secure enough food for their families. Apart from prostitution, some families have even married off their young daughters.
The United Nations World Food Programme has provided a four month funding package, which will provide food for camp residents until September. The Zimbabwean government has estimated that during this time, it will have secured enough money and land to properly compensate flood victims.
Meanwhile, the Justice for Children Trust continues to advocate for increased transparency among government officials working in the camps.
“Allegations of child abuse are serious and must be investigated and perpetrators brought to book if found guilty,” said director Caleb Mutandwa.
Yet, it remains to be seen if, and to what extent, the police or the global community will intervene.
– Mari LeGagnoux