Esnath first traded sex at age 13, after she was forced out of her family home in Harare’s old suburb of Mbare.

To survive, she decided to lie about her age, she said, taking refuge with a group of older women who became her mentors in Hopley.

Hopley is an informal settlement south east of Harare with a population of approximately 200 000 people of which 65 000 are between 10 and 24years, according to a latest population  census.

Young people in this community have limited access to work opportunities often relying on informal work.

Child marriages and teenage pregnancies are the order of the day at Hopley, standing at 18% and 21% respectively according to a study conducted by the United Nations’ Population Fund (UNFPA).

The study also showed that at least 70% of girls in Hopley are mothers by age 24 years.

Here, Esnath was taught all sorts of survival tactics through sex as she was convinced that chances to land a job as a house maid out of Hopley were next to nil.

She is now among Hopley’s army of sex workers, most of whom are addicted to illegal drugs.

Drug abuse as a menace

Zimbabwe, just like many other African countries, is battling a rising drug scourge affecting mostly the country’s poor and crime-ridden suburbs.

There is no official data on drug or substance abuse in Zimbabwe as yet because a population size estimate has never been done, but anecdotal evidence points to a lot of illicit drug use on the ground in the country.

It is estimated that 60% of young people aged between 16 and 35 years could have used or are using drugs or similar substances.

“I was kicked out of the house by my brothers when I was 13 after I came home late,” Esnath said.

“I now stay here in Hopley with my ‘aunt’. Yes, I am a sex worker, but it’s my ‘aunt’ who mostly gets the clients for me. I have been under her custody since last year.”

Esnath said she was working for her “aunt”, who took care of her after she was kicked out of her home.

“You can now leave, if my aunt sees you with me she would think you are a potential client and you would, therefore, have to pay me,” she said.

“We are not paid directly by the clients, but she is the one who takes the money and she pays us once a week.

“If I had a place to go, I would do my things my own way.

“We are three girls working under her.”

Esnath said apart from using beer outlets as hunting spots for customers, these days they frequent drug bases which are a hive of activity compared to traditional beer outlets.

Drug bases on the rise

Investigations by The Standard show that the high demand for illicit drugs coupled with  lack of deterrent policing has resulted in the proliferation of “drug bases” in most suburbs across Harare, with the poor and crime-prone areas like Mbare and Hopley being the most affected.

The investigations established that drug bases are one-stop shops for practically any vice, ranging from drugs and sex to selling of stolen goods, among others.

“There are many drug bases here in Hopley, but strangers like you are not allowed there,” Esnath said.

“There are people who vet you and they even monitor our movements because we work under these pimps who happen to be their colleagues.

It’s a complex web of powerful individuals, corrupt police officers, pimps and ghetto youths, Esnath revealed.

This publication’s reporters visited one drug base in an area called Nhando, in Hopley where several cars were parked outside.

Drug bases, just like shebeens, are illegal wild indoor gatherings organised by drug lords as well as brothel queens and kings with activities that include beer drinking binges, drugs and sex.

“There is no tight security here that is why we brought you to this place,” said Esnath.

“Buy me a quart of Black Label since you are not interested in sex.

“You are my financier today and I will give you all the information, even of what happens in Mbare.”

However, Esnath said all was not rosy since sex work is illegal and stigmatised.

“These restrictions make us vulnerable to violence by clients, pimps, drug lords and brothel keepers,” she said.

“I have been a victim of gender-based violence in these drug bases and even my ‘aunt’ is not a saint when it comes to violence.

“A colleague at some point fell pregnant, but my  aunt facilitated that it be terminated.

“Despite my friend having wanted to keep the pregnancy, the aunt insisted it would keep her out of business.”

Drugs, politics and power

This publication ascertained that drug bases were flourishing in Mbare despite police having launched a series of nationwide anti-drug blitz, including the recent name shaming of drug lords.

Police spokesperson Assistant Commissioner Paul Nyathi said they have resorted to naming and shaming convicted drug dealers as part of efforts aimed at addressing the scourge.

He said most of those convicted were repeat offenders and were mainly found in possession of crystal meth, cocaine and other high-profile drugs.

“We will continue naming and shaming drug barons and suppliers in any part of the country,” Nyathi said.

He said police have intensified efforts to deal with drug bases and the drug scourge in general.

In Mbare, several drug bases are operated by the area’s ward 3 councillor, Simbarashe Chanachimwe of Zanu PF, popularly known as Dhama.

His drug base, affectionately known as PaDhama, is situated at an open space near Block 14 Matapi Flats, investigations reveal.

“Who does not know that Dhama is a drug lord who operates several shebeens and drug bases here in Mbare,” Mike, a cart pusher in Mbare said.

“I can show you the place if you buy me gwibidi [a blend of water and fertiliser or ethanol].”

“At night I usually go there and sell the blue diamond pill [sex enhancement pills] and it’s in demand, usually with the older men.

Known as Bouyaman in drug trade, the drug lords, most of whom are native to their ghettos of operation, are well connected to influential people, including the police whom they pay for “protection”, investigations reveal.

Most of their drugs are sourced from foreign lands, local public health institutions, private pharmacies and others like musombodhiya are home-made.

They are making a killing out of anything that intoxicates, from Crystal Meth (mutoriro, guka or dombo) to medications such as Codeine, Diazepam maragada or mangemba), Ketamine and Pethidine, morphine and Fentanyl.

Early last year police pounced on Dhama’s drug base at Matapi Flats and found him in possession of 26 sachets of mbanje and a mbanje plant measuring 1,7 metres.

He was released on $50 000 bail.

Surprisingly, Dhama’s charges were inexplicably dropped and went on to contest in the municipal elections last year in August under a Zanu PF ticket, and eventually won.

In 2021, Dhama was arrested for breaching Covid-19 regulations after sponsoring a concert in Mbare with DJs Levels and Fantan.

However, the trio was released after the High Court granted them bail pending appeal.

Dhama could not be reached for comment yesterday.

“All kinds of drugs are found at the drug bases and sex is also readily available, which is why the blue diamond pill is selling like hot cakes,” Mike said.

“Owners of these drug bases hire these young sex workers to entertain clients or to work as drug peddlers.

“There are lots of sexually transmitted diseases at these bases because sex workers, mainly young girls are forced to indulge in unprotected sex or they do it under the influence.”

GBV, drug abuse and HIV

According to UNFPA, in Zimbabwe one in three women aged between 15 and 49 have experienced physical violence and about one in four women have experienced sexual violence since the age of 15.

Sex workers bear a disproportionate burden of gender-based violence with significant consequences on their physical and mental health.

Sheila, a sex worker in Mbare said she was addicted to drugs and has since stopped peddling drugs.

Her life has not been a bed of roses as she is exposed to many trials and tribulations that make her chosen career path grim.

Sheila is among hordes of sex workers who are most vulnerable to gender based violence and HIV infection in the country.

According to UNAids, the global median HIV prevalence among sex workers is 2,5%, ranging from 0% to 62.3% , which is higher than the 0,7% global prevalence in the general adult population (aged 15–49 years).

“I used to sell drugs and I also traded sex,” Sheila said. I am now worn out and at some point I tried to hire some young girls to do it on my behalf, but they just left.

“At some point I was addicted to drugs and I would sell the drugs on the streets and at beer outlets.

“I can’t go to the bases now because I am no longer that attractive, I am living with HIV.”

“Get what you want and leave just now or else we will deal with you,” she said.

Development practitioner Takemore Mazuruse said sex workers feel marginalised and discriminated against on the basis that they are sex workers.

“The law and marginalisation make them more vulnerable to all sorts of violence by clients, pimps and drug base operators,” Mazaruse said.

“They are often harassed by the police or fall victim to crime by working in dangerous environments like drug bases where they go to escape public scrutiny.

“When they lodge complaints about sexual abuse perpetrated against them, they are not taken seriously simply because of their profession.”

Gender-based violence among adolescents remains a critical global issue, with detrimental effects on the physical, emotional, and social well-being of young individuals.

In response to rising cases of gender based violence among adolescents in Mbare, Hopley and other suburbs, Plan International – an organisation that advances children’s rights and promote equality for girls – through the Safe and Inclusive Cities project has implemented a range of interventions aimed at curbing the scourge and promoting gender equality among adolescents.

“Plan International through the project has employed a multifaceted approach to address gender-based violence among adolescents, focusing on prevention, advocacy, and empowerment,” said the organisation’s head of programmes Antoinette Ngoma.

“One of the key interventions implemented by the organisation is the promotion of comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) in schools and communities.

“Through CSE programmes, adolescents are equipped with knowledge and skills to understand and address issues related to consent, healthy relationships, and respectful behaviour, thereby reducing the risk of gender-based violence.”

Ngoma said in addition to CSE, targeted initiatives have been developed by the Safe and Inclusive Cities project to empower adolescent girls and boys, including leadership and life skills training, mentorship programmes and economic empowerment initiatives.

“These interventions aim to challenge traditional gender norms, build self-confidence, and promote the agency of adolescents in resisting and reporting instances of GBV,” she said. — Standard

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