By Kizito Makoye
Dar es Salaam (TrustLaw)-- A billboard bearing a message “Graduate with A’s not with AIDS” at the University of Dar es Salaam tells the grim story of desperately cash-strapped female students who are resorting to prostitution to survive.
“College life is too tough, and I don’t have other means to earn an income, what to do? I have to inevitably make use of my body to survive,” said Mariam, 24, who is pursuing a degree in social work at the Institute of Social Work here. Mariam and other students interviewed declined to give their full names.
As an off-campus student, Mariam is entitled to a daily stipend of 7,500 Tanzanian Shillings (TZS), or about $4.60, from the Higher Education Students Loan Board, to help cover her meals and accommodation, but she complains the tiny allowance is rarely being paid on time.
To cope with the soaring cost of living in this sprawling city, Mariam, who comes from Singida region in central Tanzania, shares a dilapidated rented room with a colleague in the Kijitonyama neighborhood, nearby the college. A big chunk of her allowance goes to rent.
Almost daily, she gets up in the middle of the night, puts on her make-up and a sexy dress and joins a stream of fellow students heading to the up-market neighborhood of Sinza, where they troll for prospective clients.
Despite the danger of contracting HIV/AIDS, which members of parliament and university officials say has infected a number of her fellow students, Mariam believes that selling sex to make money to sustain her college life is a risk worth taking.
A matter of life or death
“It’s a matter of life or death…but at least I have the knowledge to protect myself from the deadly virus. There is no excuse for not using a condom,” she said.
Mariam joins the throng of other prostitutes in Sinza, which has become a center of nightlife, including nightclubs, bars and myriad guest houses catering to short-term customers.
“My mind is very clear, I am not supposed to do this business but since I am far away from home and I don’t have financial support, I suppose I have to be in the game,” she said.
Despite a shy demeanor, Mariam proves adept when dealing with potential customers. She said she targets wealthy married men because they pay more.
“Married men are best ones to deal with. You don’t have to bargain the price since you are assured of bagging extra money,” she said.
On average she would earn TZS.30,000 to 45,000, or between about $18 and $28, per night depending on the flow of customers. She charges TZS.10,000 to TZS.15,000, or between $6 and $9, per transaction.
“I usually decline customers who want an overnight sex, since I need time for study… it’s a risky business but we do it,” she said.
“Some clients don’t pay, I am always very careful to ensure that they pay me in advance, “she said of the challenges she faces.
Mariam’s story illustrates the plight of hundreds of other female university students who see prostitution as the only way to finance their survival while they study.
The Dar es Salaam University Students’ Organization (DARUSO) has said that some of its female members, especially those who are off-campus, have been forced to seek multiple partners to supplement their tiny, and often late, allowance payments.
DARUSO’s minister for health told TrustLaw that “It’s a pity that our colleagues are getting caught in the trap but merely because the students’ allowances are not enough… the government should take this issue seriously to improve students’ welfare”
Simon Kivamwo, chairman of Association of Journalist Against AIDS (AJAAT), said prostitution is one of the contributing factors to the escalation of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, primarily due to the pressing economic needs of female students.
“Women have become the soft target for HIV infections because of their inferior position in the society. This has to change,” he says.
A growing social and economic problem
Experts say a number of students getting into prostitution is indicative of a growing social and economic problem.
Justa Mwaituka runs Kiota for Women’s Health and Development (KIWOHEDE), a nonprofit that assists women and girls vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, such as prostitution, trafficking and underpaid labor, due to poverty and neglect. She noted that the Tanzanian system of education does not prepare students, especially girls, to be economically independent.
“There’s a need to empower our children both morally and economically so that they don’t venture into risky behavior” she said.
According to the latest behavioral and biological surveillance survey conducted in 2011, HIV/AIDS prevalence among female sex workers in Dar es Salaam is high.
The survey, commissioned by the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare, found that about 31.4 percent of 7,500 female sex workers aged between 15 and 35 are HIV positive.
Experts said prostitutes are at high risk of contracting HIV infection because the nature of their job allows for inconsistent use of condoms.
“A prostitute had little power to negotiate the use of condoms to customers who insist on unprotected sex,” said Method Kazaura, a researcher from Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences.
Although illegal, prostitution has attracted hundreds of young women, including university graduates, who find it difficult to secure jobs within their study disciplines.
At 29, Susan, who holds a Bachelors of Arts degree in sociology from Tumaini University here, said she has not been able to find a job despite having all the required qualifications.
Members of parliament, citing the problem of prostitution and HIV/AIDS infection among female students, have urged the government to issue stipends in a more timely fashion.
“These are leaders of tomorrow, but the environment they live in does not prepare them to take the challenge. The government has to make students’ welfare its top priority,” said Kebwe Stephen Kebwe, an MP on the Parliamentary HIV/AIDS committee.
According to Dar es Salaam Special Zone Police Commander Suleiman Kova, the police recently conducted a special operation which nabbed 53 commercial sex workers, out of whom 18 were students in various institutions.
Section 146 of Tanzania’s penal code states “A woman who lives wholly or in part on the earnings of prostitution or who is proved to have, for the purpose of gain, exercised control, direction or influence other over the movements of a prostitute in such a manner as to show that she is aiding, abetting or compelling her prostitution with any person, or generally, commits an offense.
Despite frequent crackdowns, however, public prosecutors have often failed to institute criminal charges against prostitutes since the law regards it as a minor offence.
(Editing by Lisa Anderson)