If anyone doubted this, then the Zimbabwe International Trade Fair (ZITF) left them without any shadow of doubt.
For the first time in its 50-year-long history, ZITF attracted members of the oldest profession who exhibited at the premier event.
Loved and hated in equal measure – the sex workers took up space at the showcase, turned heads and were quite an attraction.
Under the thoroughly discredited government of former president Robert Mugabe, this would have been impossible as this was considered a taboo.
But under President Emmerson Mnangagwa, his administration has been going to any lengths to prove that Zimbabwe is now “open for business”.
Sex workers have taken heed of that call, resulting in social media going haywire after news broke out that some of the members of the oldest profession were exhibiting at ZITF.
While respected lawyer and a prominent opposition figure, David Coltart, questioned the logic, a visit to the stand proved otherwise, as the sex workers stand was swamped with all kinds of visitors from the young to the old.
What made their exhibition unique was that they distributed male and female condoms while demonstrating their correct use.
The Daily News witnessed a number of men and women making enquiries at the stand while also collecting fliers and booklets that contained information on sex education.
While some might have seen it funny to be associated with the stand, interestingly the ladies at the stand showed enthusiasm and vigour as they educated people about their trade, particularly on the health side of it.
The sex workers got support from organisations such as Women Against All Forms of Discrimination (WAAFD), the Zimbabwe Aids Network (Zan), Sexual Rights Centre (SRC) and the National Aids Council (Nac), among others.
SRC legal support officer Sipho Khumalo said they were at the fair to do advocacy and not sell sex as has been widely portrayed in some sectors.
“We are here as Sexual Right Centre at the exhibition not to sell sex; we are advocating for health rights of sex workers, can that be corrected please,” Khumalo said.
“We are saying these people are here; they should be known that they are here. Can the health facilities treat sex workers the same as anyone else. Do not discriminate them according to their job description. We are not wearing miniskirts at the ZITF,” Khumalo said.
Hazel Anesu Zemura, the communications, health research and advocacy officer at Zan said they took advantage of the fair to do their advocacy, which she said had received overwhelming response.
“We are here to defend and reclaim the rights of sex workers and prisoners who are also called key populations in HIV/AIDS,” Zemura said.
“We call them key populations because these are the people who are at high risk of contracting as well as transmitting the virus. So, what we are doing here is amplifying their voice – advocating for friendly health services. We want them to be treated in non-discriminatory and non-stigmatised ways. When they get to a local clinic, they are supposed to get health care services regardless of what they do,” she said.
Zemura said they were worried about the trend whereby sex workers are denied their right to health at various clinics and hospitals in the country.
“In some areas, where they are known to be sex workers they can be denied health care services. We are saying give them treatment because if you do that we also know that the community is safe. We are also saying let’s leave no one behind in our effort to curb HIV because you might not know that your partner is also buying sex.”
She added: “We are also saying we want to end gender-based violence because we realise that people hire sex workers and they don’t even pay for their services.”
By yesterday Zemura said they had distributed more than a dozen of condom boxes each containing about 200 condoms.
“It’s been very hectic here people are just interested in the stand and there has been a lot of condom and lubricants distribution since the beginning of the Trade Fair.
“Boxes and boxes have gone and each box contains 200 condoms and don’t forget that in each pack there are four condoms. We are distributing quality condoms with different flavours not those blue ones known as MaDeMbare that people hate. Our advice is that people should not just collect condoms but they should use them.”
Jerry Manyika the key populations coordinator for Nac said their target was to reduce the prevalence of HIV/AIDS through the exhibition.
“We are intensifying target interventions for the key populations and these populations are key in terms of them being vulnerable to HIV infections because of the conditions of their work hence they become key to our response,” Manyika said.
“We prioritise them because of the nature of their job. You must realise that the longer you stay in sex work the more the chances of acquiring HIV, so we want them to stay long in sex work but stay HIV free,” he said.
Helen Chaitezvi, the provincial chairperson for WAAFD said they were a voluntary organisation where sex workers pay a small fee to be a member and we make them pay monthly subscription.
“We have opened netball teams for sex workers only in the city where we have various competitions,” she said.
“We are still working on our papers to open funeral policies for our members such that we become organised like any other profession. We also teach them how to negotiate for safer sex,” she said.