Trading sexual favours for food and school fees in Zimbabwe

Katherine Mueller, IFRC

“He fondled my breasts and had sex with me.” It is a statement a 15 year old girl should not be making. But faced with growing hunger, from the moment of waking in the morning until laying down to sleep at night, Melody (not her real name) felt she had no other option but to give herself to a man more than four times her age.

“It started when I was 12,” says Melody. “I kept going to him because I was hungry. He fed me and helped with my school expenses. I was happy he paid because, as a family, we were not able to raise the funds.” Her family accepted the assistance from the man they considered a friend, not realizing the sacrifice Melody was making. “He threatened me if I told anyone what he was doing to me,” she whispers quietly.

The Zimbabwean teenager is not alone in turning to desperate measures to survive. Across southern Africa, approximately 9 million people are affected by lack of food, particularly in Zimbabwe, Malawi and Namibia. As a consequence, people are adopting a wide range of negative coping mechanisms. In Zimbabwe, this includes eating one meal a day instead of three, illegally digging for gold, children dropping out of school, trading livestock for cereal (which erodes a family’s assets), and the trading of sexual favours for food.

It is a chronic crisis with multiple causes, including recurring droughts and rising food prices. With people earning less than one dollar a day, having to pay two dollars for a head of cabbage is prohibitive. Trends show that, over the years, the food insecurity situation in Zimbabwe has been worsening. A report from the Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee indicates 2.2 million people, or 25 per cent of rural households, do not have enough food right now. That is a 32 per cent increase compared to the year before.

The Zimbabwe Red Cross Society, with support from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, is providing support to more than 10,000 people in Gwanda district in Matabeleland South province. It is one of the worst affected districts, and while other agencies are present, none is working to address the issue of acute food security.

“We are providing 2,100 families with three monthly cash transfers of 50 US dollars, to help them survive through to the annual harvest in April,” says Tabani Khumalo, field manager, Zimbabwe Red Cross Society. “People can spend the money how they wish, but of course we advise them to purchase a complete food package which includes cereal, pulses and oil.”

The money means families are now eating healthier and more often, but it does not mean people are out of the woods just yet. There has been rainfall, and crops of maize are growing, readying themselves for the annual harvest. However, in some parts of Gwanda, there has actually been too much rain and crops are rotting in the fields, reducing the yields for families which are already struggling.

Also, the emergency appeal launched by the Red Cross was designed to ensure a potential food security crisis was averted, by addressing emergency life-saving needs. A longer term, strategic intervention is still required to meet food insecurity needs across southern Africa.

Melody is no longer trading sexual favours for food and school fees. The man abusing her is behind bars. “I am really angry with him,” she says. “Even now, sometimes we have enough food, sometimes we don’t, but I would never again accept an offer of exchanging food for sex. I am slowly healing. My faith helps me to forget,” adds Melody before returning to her Sunday church service.