#ChooseToChallenge gender based violence

International Women's Day is a global day celebrating women! This year their theme is 'Choose To Challenge.’

Imagine working in an industry where, if you even reported gender based violence, there would only be a 20% chance that the police would investigate?

Or living where 35% of women experience gender based violence?

That’s the reality for some women, especially sex workers in Zimbabwe. And that‘s why we agree that we need to choose to challenge! A challenged world is an alert world!

According to the World Economic Forum, Zimbabwe ranks 47th out of 153 countries in terms of bridging the gender gap, in areas such as education, employment, and health. That puts it in the top 5 sub-Saharan countries.

But what do these statistics actually mean for the women who live in Zimbabwe?

According to the same study, 35.4% of women can expect to experience gender-related violence in their lifetime, and this risk increases for those who choose to work in the sex industry.

And when we say ‘choose’ what we actually mean is “resort to”.

When you live in abject poverty, with little to no education or skills to draw upon, you too might feel forced to resort to sex work to provide for your family’s basic needs.

According to AIDS Fonds’ Hands Off! Program, 63% of sex workers in Zimbabwe experienced violence in the past year. This is shocking enough but when you find out that 61% experienced violence at the hands of police upon arrest - it is all the more shocking. Especially when you discover that 27% of those women had sex with a police officer, and a further 58% paid a bribe to the police officers, in order to avoid being arrested.

acet UK and the Nehemiah Project partner together through the Shining Star Project, which brings much-needed hope and healing to women and girls engaged in sex work. Over the last year, they have reached 1182 girls and women with critically needed sexual health messages.

The threat of detention and laws that equate carrying condoms as evidence of sex work are serious barriers to the availability and uptake of HIV prevention programmes and services for sex workers.

In the AIDS Fonds’ Hands Off! Program, 58% of sex workers reported being arrested! On average they spent up to 12 hours in detention. Fear of arrest, and/or police-led sexual and other physical violence, forces sex workers to remain mobile, in order to avoid detection by the authorities. This means that 17% of the sex workers who are living with HIV do not have regular access to treatment as they fear discrimination at health institutions.

And when sex workers decide to report an incident, only 20% are actually investigated by the police. Imagine what a difference it would make to these sex workers if the ‘Choose to Challenge’ message from this year’s International Women’s Day was recognised in Zimbabwe!

So, what are we doing at acet UK, in partnership with the Shining Star Project, to help close the gender gap in Zimbabwe and address the issue of gender based violence? 

In 2020, a workshop led by lawyers and police officers empowered 53 peer educators with the confidence and knowledge to address the gender based violence often perpetrated against sex workers. 84% of the peer educators who attended, reported experiencing gender-based violence, but only 5% of them had ever reported this. The peer educators now know how to seek necessary legal support and counselling, and they have access to the Shining Star legal consultant.

There were also outreach sessions run for 86 men at sex work hotspots. 35% of men surveyed said that they would beat a woman who refused to have sexual intercourse with them. During the outreach sessions, they were educated about practicing safe sex and preventing gender-based violence. 11 of them were also tested for HIV.

There is still a long way to go to close the gender gap globally, in fact, the World Economic Forum estimates it will take 99.5 years if change continues at its current rate. This can seem insurmountable!

But through projects like The Shining Star Project, we are able to impact the lives of individual women, giving them the opportunity to choose their working conditions and access the support they need.

From challenge comes change, so please, let us all choose to challenge. What will you choose?