By Norma Tsopo
The influx of tourists to Victoria Falls has the nation bubbling with pride at the hypnotic pull of the majestic and picturesque water drop.
But there is need for caution even in the joy of celebrating this natural wonder as it revered by all humanity.
Where good abound – the ugly and the bad maybe as well.
Considering how the country’s famed economic collapse has spun poverty and made millions vulnerable there is a risk of sexual exploitation of young girls in and around the resort town by criminals who are targeting tourist destinations across the globe.
Suspicions that this idyllic holiday destination may already be playground for these criminal activities which have been going up globally in recent years.
Pedophiles are allegedly using this Zambezi River waterfall as a vehicle to access to the country and use local runners to comb the region for vulnerable children – especially targeting the abundant child-headed families, for sexual exploitation.
A deep in the fortunes of coal mining in Hwange is suspected to have significantly fuelled this devious trade, as its proximity to the falls and urban set up offers child sex trafficking ideal conditions – with neighbours lacking the adult guardianship authority that closely knit rural communities usually offer for child-headed families.
Sexual abuse of young girls as child prostitutes and in the production of pornographic videos has been going on for years, according to locals.
A general disdain of child pornography in the country has been helping to keep the practice secret locally and helped the criminal rings to do their work undisturbed as their works are not distributed locally – with their victims remaining anonymous to the consumer market of the lewd films.
Although child sex tourism has come to be seen as a major concern within the tourism industry and the human rights community since the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, Zimbabwe does not seem too concerned to protect under-aged children from visiting sex offenders.
Campaigns against human trafficking for sexual exploitation are almost non-existed across the country’s tourist destinations which are often hubs of for such activities.
Despite over 20 years of fighting, sexual exploitation of children in travel and tourism (SECTT) has expanded across the globe and out-paced every attempt to respond at the international and national level, according to a 2016 global study on sexual exploitation of children in travel and tourism – sex offenders on the move, by End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Child Trafficking for Sexual Purposes (ECPAT) International.
It cites the increasingly inter-connectedness of the world, “with most parts of the planet within reach thanks to ever-cheaper travel and the spread of the Internet, no region is now untouched by SECTT”.
In November 2017, a 13-year-old school girl was ‘abducted’ for three days together with her 12-year-old friend for sexual exploitation by pornographic film makers.
She left home to watch a movie at Hwange Colliery Club, a major hunting ground for the runners, on November 24, 2017 in the company of her two friends – the preteen and a fellow 13-year-old.
From, here, they were picked up by some men in a silver SUV at around 10 pm. Their 13-year-old friend was only saved by a neighbour who identified her and intercepted as she was about to board the vehicle.
A missing persons’ report was filled after 24 hours as the two girls had not returned. They were only to be located after three days and their abductees were arrested.
The girl who remained revealed that her two friends had been taken by “men who shoot movies”.
She revealed that there was a thriving pornography filming industry which many of her age-mates and even younger girls in the area were a part of.
They would earn as little as $20 – a substantial amount for the young girls struggling to make ends meet amidst the community’s biting poverty.
“Although these girls went for only three days girls from child headed families can go for more than a week,” Chiratidzo Mdimba a local councilor said.
Lwendulu primary school head Virginia Ncube expressed concern over the rampant sexual abuse of children in Hwange advising guardians to work closely with school authorities to ensure that their whereabouts are always known.
“At times these girls do not show up at school for days and this can be helped if guardians are in constant touch with school authorities,” Ncube said.
Local traditional leader, Chief Joshua Wange challenged government to strengthen its social services to curb poverty induced vulnerabilities.
“Our children here are being preyed upon because of the rising poverty levels and this would not have been the case if there were social safety nets to protect them.
“Children belong to the state and what is happening now needs urgent redress. Government should step in and take full custody of these children but ensuring that these syndicates are busted,” Chief Wange said.
Centre for Natural Resource Governance (CNRG) lays part of the blame of increasing the children’s vulnerability on Hwange Colliery Company’s 2012 retrenchment of employees whom they are yet to five their terminal benefits – trapping them in poverty.
Many of these former employees have died living their families stranded in the compounds. Some of the widows have been waiting for their pay-outs since 2009.
CNRG is capacitating women to detect human rights violations, with support from OSISA. Women were trained under the intervention over the past two years blew the whistle on the disappearance of the girls.
It is from this sea of orphans and their vulnerable children that the sex predators are hunting from.
“Young girls have been the most affected some are being forced to be used like this because of the embarrassment they have to endure when they stain their clothes because they lack appropriate sanitary wear.
“Even current employees go for months without receiving their salaries,” CNRG Director Farai Maguwu opines.
He said the company and other smaller mining companies in the area were caught unawares by changes in the global coal market and its demand locally.
Maguwu said it was unfortunate that the welfare of the family was now being sacrificed.
“The closure of the mines and resultant retrenchments is seeing workers being sacrificed as easy targets. These workers and their families are now destitute as they can’t even afford the relocation costs to move out of Hwange,” he said.
Maguwu said Hwange Colliery Company did not anticipate the drastic fall in production and had failed to diversify and its employees’ children are now paying the price for the ineptitude.
“Hwange community was caught unawares by the sudden drop in the production and demand for coal. No diversification had taken place. The vulnerability of the community is glaring.
“Sexual exploitation of young girls in Hwange is a scourge that is on the rise owing to the death of basic income,” Maguwu said.
He said women are now also suffering from rampant domestic violence as families struggle to cope.
“Domestic violence is another silent scourge that is afflicting this community, especially women, as a consequence of low economic activity and lack of alternatives for the community,” Maguwu said.
But to hedge the vulnerable community from abuse by the rich tourists and sex predators who are taking advantage of their vulnerability ZimRights chairperson Passmore Nyakureba said law enforcement needs to be sterner.
“We have the requisite laws around child sexual abuse and the booking of all guests that check into all licensed accommodation facilities and we need to also ensure that only licensed facilities are used by tourists to prevent any illegal activities by our visitors,” Nyakureba said.
There has been a mushrooming of brothels under the guise of guest houses with many unlicensed secret ‘massage parlours’ in the resort town that could be used for the illicit activities.
Although the town has a Tourism Police Unit it has not been effective in sniffing out and stopping the vice.
Interpol and other international policing agencies as well as World Tourism Organisation (WTO) have failed to stem the scourge of sex tourism because of varying legal statutes in individual countries.
Nyakureba said hospitality industry players should be motivated to promote a socially responsible and sustainable tourism that respects the rights of the child by preventing any suspicious underage girl from being checked into their facilities.
Nyakureba said the country’s immigration department should also actively screen visitors for any sexual offences.
“I can be certain that some of the people that maybe behind this may have criminal records and these can be barred entry,” he said.
Maguwu said the country’s efforts to protect children in Hwange can be eased by the implementation of the Global Code of Ethics for Tourism (GCET) and a stricter penal code against child sexual abuse.
He said both the tourism sector and government should take full responsibility for what is happening in Hwange as GCET, article 1, section 3 states that “the exploitation of human beings in any form, particularly sexual, especially when applied to children, conflicts with the fundamental aims of tourism and is the negation of tourism; as such, in accordance with international law, it should be energetically combated with the cooperation of all the States concerned and penalised without concession by the national legislation of both the countries visited and the countries of the perpetrators of these acts, even when they are carried out abroad”.
He said the absence of any known prosecution of sexual offenders was worrying.
“There is need to train hospitality industry staff on how to detect suspicious behaviours and know how to react because some of this could be happening in hotels and lodges,” Maguwu said.