Shebeens: a haven for girl child abuse
By Duduzile Ruzive
One of the key features that mark Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second biggest city, is the high prevalence of shebeens. A sheeben is a residential house, mostly in the high density suburbs that is converted into an unlicensed establishment that sells alcohol and food.
According to the Zimbabwe Republic Police records, Entumbane, Luveve and Nkulumane high density suburbs top the list in the prevalence of shebeens in Bulawayo. While shebeens attract sizable patrons who enjoy the warm and personal services offered by shebeen owners, the dark side of shebeens is the prevalence of exploitation of girls. Shebeens employ young girls as sex slaves although the girls are often disguised as waitresses.
Thabani Mhlanga (15) lives in Njube, one of Bulawayo’s high density suburbs. Thabani says she started working as a waitress at her aunt’s shebeen when she was 14 years old.
“My parents died when I was nine years old. I moved in with my paternal aunt who is a shebeen queen here in Njube. Initially, I was going to school but later dropped off. I then started working in the shebeen as an attendant,” says Thabani.
Thabani says her main duties in the shebeen involved collecting cash and serving beer and food to patrons. She says the patrons were of diverse ages and had different needs and taste. She says initially she was very uncomfortable because some of the patrons had a tendency of indecently grabbing her.
“The environment in the shebeen is not easy at all. The patrons are rowdy and can easily turn violent. My aunt was always there and would intervene if she felt the patrons were going too far. At the same time she told me not to be too sensitive because the patrons would move on to other shebeens,” says Thabani.
A few months into her work, Thabani says aunt told her that there was a patron who wanted her and had paid some money to have sex with her. She says she refused the proposal but her aunt told her that the customer would be unhappy about it and move on to other shebeens.
“There were other girls of my age who patronised our shebeen and would entertain men old enough to be their fathers. There were some spare bedrooms that customers would book to have sex with the girls. I complied with my aunt’s orders and that was the beginning of my numerous sex encounters with the shebeen patrons,” says Thabani.
Thabani says one day a young man came to the shebeen and asked her to elope with him to Esigodini, a mining area that is 40 kilometres south of Bulawayo. She says she agreed because she was now feeling that her aunt was exploiting her.
“My aunt would collect money from customers for them to sleep with me. I felt that this was unfair. When I raised the issue with her, she said part of the money was going towards her accommodation and food. When the opportunity to leave came up, I quickly agreed,” says Thabani.
When she arrived in Esigodini, Thabani says she stayed briefly with her boyfriend but was not happy with the environment. She says in Esigodini, there is a high demand for sex workers because of the high prevalence of gold panners. She says she decided to join scores of other girls who are sex workers in the area.
Amanda Dube (23), a sex worker in Esigodini says she also started to ply her trade at a shebeen in Bulawayo.
“I was staying with my grandmother in Nkulumane. My grandmother was poor and struggled to support me and my young brother. When I was 14, I started to go to a shebeen that was a few metres from our home. The shebeen queen gave me part time jobs such as sweeping the yard and the cleaning the rooms. She encouraged me to come even during the evening to do some work,” says Amanda.
Amanda says some patrons started to pester her for sex and offering a lot of money. She says that is how her journey into sex work started.
Amanda says many girls in the high density suburbs start sex work through shebeens because they are located closer to their home and there is no age restrictions into the shebeens since they are not registered entities. She says drugs are widely available in shebeens and girls use these drugs to get the courage to sleep with older men.