By Admire Masuku
Harare, March 29, 2016 – TENDAI Muchena is a young sex worker plying her trade in Harare’s sprawling suburb of Epworth.
For someone who shares a single room with her child, she is often confronted with tough choices on what to do with the minor when it is time to entertain clients.
Despite the general discomfort male clients go through in children’s presence, she still finds it was taboo for her child to witness her sexual experiences.
To deal with the “challenge”, Tendai says she takes dagga inside her room to induce sleep in the child.
“I drug him because I need to go out and work during the night,” says the 25 year-old, adding that the child usually suffers headaches, coughs and teary eyes each time he inhales smoke from the illicit leaf.
To many, Tendai could pass for an evil mum but she is not alone in the unorthodox practice.
Tinotenda Hoto, a fellow sex worker from the area, prefers using antidepressants to drug her own minor child to sleep.
“The pills cause the child to sleep for hours,” she says.
“I simply wash him with cold water if I want to wake him up because sometimes the child oversleeps.
“At times I give my child cooking oil and Broncleer.”
Broncleer is an illicit brew commonly referred to as “bronco”. Sex workers also make use of sedatives to drug their children.
Other commonly used depressants include alcohol, cannabis, melatonin, cough syrups, Benadryl, zopiclone and temazepam.
While the practice could be working for young mothers who are into sex work, health experts have warned of dire consequences if children are subjected to drugs.
The substances, according to Great Zimbabwe University Educational Psychologist, Herbert Zirima, slow down brain activity, reduce alertness and also lead to muscle relaxation.
Edmos Mtetwa, a lecturer at the University Of Zimbabwe School of Social Work says some of the drugs are usually used on animals for breeding purposes.
“Due to rapid globalisation coupled with economic challenges facing Zimbabwe, some people, especially sex workers are now resorting to giving their children non prescribed drugs,” he says.
Antidepressants are used to treat several conditions including, but not limited to, depression, mood disorders, agitation and severe behavioural disorders in children.
Mtetwa says the use of such drugs on children was downright abuse.
“This copping mechanism is not only illegal but cruel. It does not benefit the child on whom the drug is administered but the adult administering it.
“All psychotropic drugs have the effect of altering a person’s mind, emotions and behaviour.”
Independent Health and Social Equity Consultant, who is also Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights chairperson, Dr Rutendo Bonde says doping of children affects their normal development.
“The major health implication is the high probability of disruption of normal mental, physical and psychological developmental processes within such children,” says Dr Bonde.
Dr Bonde says the scourge calls for urgent efforts to sensitise partner organisations and the public health system on its dangers.
Dr Cowan, director of the Centre for Sexual Health and HIV AIDS Research Zimbabwe (CeSHHAR-Zimbabwe) says most women who take sex work for a living abuse substance to feel emotionally detached.
His organisation has confined its activities on sexual health research, promoting rights of sex workers and highlighting the risks they face in their profession.
In the meanwhile, research on how sex workers’ lifestyles impact on their children’s growth patterns has been minimal.
Mrs Dorcas Shirley Sithole, the deputy director Mental Health Services, Ministry of Health and Child Care says her Ministry has not been able to carry out any research on drug abuse due to the lack of funds.
The country’s health ministry and its development partners have professed ignorance over the scourge
Other social leaders feel the problem requires a multi-sectoral approach which requires greater understanding of its complexities and prescribing long lasting solutions.
Zirima feels solutions should start with attempts to mend the broken family systems which have driven vulnerable women into sex work at the expense of their young offspring.
He added: “Abused children should be taken to safe houses where they can receive psychotherapy services so that they can re-adjust and continue with their lives.
“There is need for awareness campaigns, to educate people on the practice and mobilise communities to guard against the spread of such activities.”