Vulnerability of women and girls in Zimbabwe has heightened since the dashed hopes of the 2018 elections.
The economic crisis means unemployment is around 90%, with 63% of households living below the poverty line.
As a result, the country has seen growth in informal labour including sex work, as well as mining and trucking which, in turn, create hotspots for sex work.
A cash shortage is seeing women, and girls as young as 12, engaging in riskier sexual activity when offered more money: including unprotected sex, and having sex with clients in the home where children are, leaving them vulnerable to rape and drugging.
Sexual gender-based violence is also common and is a key driver of HIV.
Stigma, poverty and gender inequality remove women's autonomy to request use of protection or access treatment, and adolescent sex workers are particularly vulnerable.
The psychosocial trauma of sex work is heightened when understood against the sexual health horizon. Zimbabwe continues to have one of the highest rates of HIV in the world, with approximately 1.3 million people living with HIV.
The burden of this primarily falls on women, with 740,000 women living with HIV, and 60% of sex workers testing positive.
For girls and women engaged in sex work, access to information and services promoting sexual wellbeing is essential.
Shining Star’s Viola talks about one of the factors that drives girls into sex work: “We have men who work as soldiers in DRC, who built their houses in Cowdray Park [in Bulawayo] so they had to leave their children behind. And now there’s child-headed families – they’re now looking after their other siblings. And, because of that, they can’t afford to look after their families, so they’re now engaging in sex work.”
As peer educators, these ladies then share health messages with their peers, and provide access to referral pathways, including HIV testing, treatment and counselling services.
Weekly sex education workshops, facilitated by the peer educators, provide access to condoms, HIV and STI testing, and cervical cancer screening.
The peer educators are supported and counselled, to help them understand their potential and recognise their individual gifts and value. Business management workshops, and training in various vocational skills, help the peer educators create and sustain businesses of their own, so that they can find alternative sources of income and exit sex work.
20 year old peer educator, Shona, tells her story:
"Back then, we used to drink a lot, not think about anything - just who you’re having sex with. I would sleep with many guys with no condom or anything.
But now, since I started coming to the Nehemiah Project, I was fully equipped with knowledge about protection, about safer sex.
We’re trained for vocational trainings like baking, beauty therapy, hairdressing. Now I can say that I am fully equipped to do everything. I can say to myself that I am empowered. I am a determined, resilient, AIDS-free generation a kind of a girl.”