BEIRA, Mozambique (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Bemusa was only eight when her parents died of tuberculosis and she was left in the care of an “aunt”, who made ends meet by working as a prostitute in Mozambique’s second city, Beira.
By the time Bemusa reached puberty, her aunt wanted the girl to join her as a sex worker on the streets of Beira, a city known for its faded colonial grandeur, busy port and sleazy nightlife.
“My foster mother would push a blue candlestick laced with pepper into my vagina when I was 13,” said Bemusa, who agreed to be interviewed on condition that her real name was not used.
“Each time she scolded me, ‘you must bleed and lose it’.”
When the sexual initiation failed, Bemusa’s aunt sent two boys to sleep with her to ensure she lost her virginity. Men paid less to have sex with “inexperienced” girls, her aunt said.
At the time, food was scarce and rice, a staple, had become too expensive to buy.
“My aunt said, ‘lose that virginity, it’s a meal ticket’,” said Bemusa, who is now 18.
Bemusa now earns on average $7 a day “on a good day” selling sex to truckers, foreign traders and Chinese tourists passing through Beira, a major trading point on the Mozambique Channel for goods coming in and out of Zimbabwe, Malawi and Zambia.
Women’s rights campaigners say scores of mostly orphaned girls in Mozambique have suffered similar sexual initiations at the hands of their guardians, who offer them to rich, older men in exchange for food, clothes, cash or even a goat.
Many orphans lost their parents to HIV/AIDS which has claimed some 800,000 lives in the southern African country over the past decade.
“To refuse is seen as a taboo,” said Bemusa, who drinks tea brewed with Mudzepete leaves, a hallucinogenic drink that blunts the painful memories of her experience.
“Resisting brings violent beatings and intense shame especially when you are an orphan. You appear ungrateful.”
The teenager, who has long abandoned her dream of becoming a nurse and getting married, blames her aunt for tricking her.
“She said rich men in Mozambique pay more cows for wives who are ‘easy’, with no tight genitals. I was young, hungry, naïve.”
Disasters in recent years, such as drought and floods, have driven poor Mozambican families deeper into destitution, and more women into prostitution, local activists say.
The U.N. children’s agency UNICEF has also recognised the threat, warning in July that drought exacerbated by El Nino could lead to a spike in new HIV infections in southern Africa as more women and girls turn to sex to survive.
Many of Beira’s sex workers meet their clients inside tin shacks that line a dusty road where lorry drivers from Zimbabwe, Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo are known to rest.
An underage girl who has lost her virginity through these kinds of sexual initiations is known as a “worked girl” in the sex trade in Beira.
“I’m a worked girl. I’m more attractive,” said Bemusa, wrapping a piece of cloth, known as a kanga, around her hips to indicate to would-be clients that she is available.
“Chinese tourists usually pay $10 for a ‘worked girl’ and leave a gift,” she added.
Jane, a 44-year-old prostitute, who has been working in Beira town for nine years, defended the practice of using candlesticks to initiate her daughter into sex: “Why not? ... Far better than older men paining her later in sex.”
When asked whether this practice was a violation of her daughter, she replied: “My daughter is my property.”
Efraimo Hoso, an infectious diseases doctor who runs a health clinic in Beira, said he has seen an increase in genital warts and vaginal tears in 15-year-old girls who sell sex.
“I feel mad thinking of it,” Hoso told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The Mozambican authorities with aid agencies such as UNICEF regularly run courses for police officers, immigration officials and teachers to raise awareness about sex trafficking.
Pimping is illegal in Mozambique, and there have been high-profile prosecutions of offenders.
However, rather than cracking down on the offence, some police officers have been accused by sex workers of extorting sexual favours from underage girls in exchange for turning a blind eye to their activities.
“At night they happily visit my girls,” said a brothel owner in Beira.
Beira police officials declined to comment.
Bemusa is too deep into sex work to care.
“I think of trying my luck in South Africa. I hear men pay better over there,” she said.
Editing by Katie Nguyen and Jo Griffin. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories