RISKY BUSINESS: Many female small-scale farmers turn up in Zambian cities hoping to become traders, hawking clothes or groceries. However, more and more are turning to prostitution – risking arrest, violence and sexually transmitted diseases.
RISKY BUSINESS: Many female small-scale farmers turn up in Zambian cities hoping to become traders, hawking clothes or groceries. However, more and more are turning to prostitution – risking arrest, violence and sexually transmitted diseases.

Repeated failed crops caused by worsening drought have forced Christine Mwenda, a small-scale farmer in Zambia’s central Mumbwa region, to do what for her was previously unthinkable.

The 37-year-old has been selling sex in the capital, Lusaka, since 2014. The pay is better than growing maize, she said, and gives her a proper chance to feed her four children.

“On average I make close to 500 kwacha ($0.70) on a good day,” said Mwenda, who agreed to be interviewed on condition that her real name was not used.

“This is the kind of money I could only make (once) in a year from farming,” she said, explaining that once the cost of fertiliser, labour, transport and seeds was deducted, she was left with very little money from her harvest.

Like millions of Zambians, Mwenda has been struggling with soaring food bills and power shortages caused by prolonged drought exacerbated this year by the El Niño weather phenomenon.

For many small-scale and subsistence farmers, longer spells of drought and erratic rains are becoming far more frequent.

The changing climate, combined with costly fertiliser and seeds, means agriculture is becoming less attractive for many.

Prostitution is the easiest way out, but these women end up risking diseases such as HIV and Aids

“These days when you grow maize, you are not sure about the yield. Most of the time you find that the crops end up drying and you only harvest just enough to eat as a family,” Mwenda said.

“Meanwhile, we need to send our children to school.”

About 54 percent of Zambia’s 16 million people were living in poverty last year – most of them women – according to data from the Central Statistical Office.

Much of Zambia’s extreme poverty is concentrated in rural areas. According to a UN Development Programme report in 2014, extreme poverty is estimated to be four times higher in rural areas than urban centres.

The situation in the copper-producing country has not been helped by a drop in the kwacha against the dollar since April, as a result of depressed global commodity prices. The hardships have caused more and more people to migrate from rural parts to cities such as Lusaka, Kitwe and Chipata.

Lucy Bwalya, an academic at Cavendish University in Lusaka, said many women turned up in cities hoping to become traders, hawking clothes or groceries.

However, a rising number turn to prostitution instead – risking arrest, violence and sexually transmitted diseases.

“Prostitution is the easiest way out and these women end up risking diseases such as HIV and Aids,” said Bwalya, a former programmes manager for Tasintha, a charity working with sex workers.

According to the 2013/2014 demographic and health survey, the HIV prevalence rate among Zambians aged between 15 and 49 was 13 percent, compared to 16 percent in 2001/2002.

To encourage more women to stay on their farms, Zambian charity Enviro Green has been teaching them to grow climate-resistant crops such as sorghum, which require less water than the traditional staple, maize. “We are generally concerned with this rural-urban migration of people, especially women who end up in sex work,” said Enviro Green executive director Martha Simukonde.

The woman farmers are also taught farming techniques to conserve soil and water to minimise erosion and water run-off.

“We always teach them to plant their crops early so that with the early rains they can germinate,” Simukonde said.

For some women, however, these efforts come too late.

Woman’s right advocacy group Women in Law and Development in Southern Africa said the government should do more to address rural-urban migration.

“The government must put in place policies that will reverse this trend where women are coming to urban areas to engage in sex work, which is exposing them to HIV/Aids,” said programme officer Charles Sibeene. – Thomson Reuters Foundation