Zambian prostitutes bare it all on reality show

Precious Kawainga, one of the contestants, Ready 4 Marriage. Photo | BBC 

Its a reality show that has Zambians – the old and young alike – glued to their TV sets, watching and listening to tales of prostitutes.

Prostitutes, or commercial sex workers to give the more dignified term, are generally considered outcasts by polite society yet are eagerly sought after by randy men of every status in the shadow of darkness.

In a society where stigma against ‘the immoral class’ is rife, a popular privately-owned up-and-coming pay TV channel, Muvi Television, has taken the unusual approach on its annual ‘Ready 4 Marriage’ reality show of featuring 18 contestants who are all prostitutes.

Obviously, because of the participants, Ready 4 Marriage is attracting extraordinary, if mixed, reactions. The majority of viewers are supporting the programme for helping reform prostitutes while others are denouncing the sex workers for their ‘ungodly’ lives and spreading HIV/Aids.

With the lure of money attached to the show, whereby the winner will have an all-expense-paid-for wedding and over about $9,000 prize money (and eliminated contestants receiving between $1, 000 and $1, 500 consolation prizes) non-commercial sex workers jumped on the opportunity.

Lure of money

Jane Mutale, masquerading as a prostitute, was exposed after her husband appeared on the drama-packed show insisting she was his wife though they were separated.

The mother of one, who had even persuaded her parents to falsely vouch that she was an unmarried prostitute, succumbed after days of denial and confessed she had lied about being a prostitute and unmarried, saying she was attracted by the money.

Nevertheless, her deceptive tale earned Jane a large following. When her case was put to a vote, 75 per cent of viewers backed her stay in the competition airing on Muvi TV. The show, like M-Net's Big Brother Africa show, is dependent on viewers’ votes via text messages to keep or eliminate contestants.

Most participants – aged between 20 and 35 years – cite poverty, unemployment and pleasure as main causes of becoming commercial sex workers, which they claim to have now quit, opting to take up Christianity.

According to the contestants, prostitution had exposed them to frequent sexual abuse (primarily rape), beatings and diseases, among other dangers. Through this reality show opportunity, they hope, to tie matrimonial knots and live blissfully thereafter. There have been no marriage proposals yet.

'We have changed'

Tasintha is a local Nyanja word literally meaning ‘We have Changed’. It is also the name of a non-profit organisation that helps to reform prostitutes – almost 500 every year at its four centres countrywide. The organisation says the Muvi TV show will give the public a clearer picture about prostitution and thus change people’s perceptions and help reform “the girls”.

“A person that has been a prostitute for many years cannot reform overnight. It’s a long process; others even go back on the streets,” says Clotilda Phiri, head of Tasintha, adding that prostitutes are “looked down up and rejected” in society.

As a huge illegal trade in Zambia, there are however no statistics on the total number of prostitutes. 

It is difficult to know the number of prostitutes because there are a lot of them countrywide even in rural areas, said Phiri.

HIV, which is killing many parents, leaves young children with no means of survival hence “the girls” fall on prostitution to look after themselves and their siblings, said Phiri, underscoring the point that “prostitution is poverty-driven” in Zambia.

In prostitutes-ridden hot spots of Lusaka, commercial sex workers charge as low as $1 per session, just enough for a loaf of bread while the upper class prostitutes target foreign tourists and local VIPs, who pay as high as a $200 per night of pleasure, in posh hangouts of the capital city.

Illegal business

An executive – speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of ridicule and censure from friends, family and the community – told Africa Review he has a mistress or ‘second wife’, who is a commercial sex worker and even rents a flat for her to keep it discreet.

“I enjoy being with my mistress because she is better in bed than my wife,” he says but cautions: “It’s top secret!”

Asked about dangers of sleeping with a known prostitute, he defensively responds: “I am safe, I use condoms.”

The resort city of Livingstone and the mining town of Solwezi have become favourites for prostitutes – adorned in inviting skimpy dresses, catchy perfumes and supplemented by flashy night club lights – who throng bars and line up the streets, ‘selling’ sex at negotiable rates.

Often, particularly in Livingstone, local prostitutes fight their Zimbabwean counterparts, who they accuse of offering sex at low charges, disadvantaging the Zambian beauties.

In the worst cases at the peak of Zimbabwe’s economic crisis as its nationals fled to neighbouring countries for survival, some Zambian and Zimbabwean prostitutes knifed one another over cheaper sex rates.

Though the ‘business’ is unlawful, police patrols are not helping as law enforcers are allegedly asking for sexual favours from the prostitutes they apprehend, then free them thereafter.

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