Huge job losses in Copperbelt Province, Zambia's copper-mining region and economic hub, have triggered an upswing in commercial sex activities, raising fears of a spike in new HIV infections.
Judith Mubanga, 26, started doing sex work in December 2008 after her uncle lost his job at Bwana Mkubwa Mine in Ndola, the provincial capital, and could no longer assist her financially.
"My parents are dead; I was staying with my uncle, [but] when the mine closed, he told me to go to the [home] village in Kasama [northern Zambian]. There is no one to stay with in the village - my grandmother has many orphans - that's why I joined my friends," Mubanga told IRIN/PlusNews.
"We are three and we rent a room in Ndola; we travel to all Copperbelt towns. I think Chingola is where business is good - people pay and they don't complain too much. I am surviving; it is a bad thing, but I have nothing else to do."
Chingola, about 100km northeast of Ndola, is where Konkola Copper Mine (KCM), Zambia's largest mine, and Nchanga, its only open pit mine - both owned by London-listed Vedanta Resources - are located.
Tumbling international copper prices as a result of the global economic slump have forced mining firms to cut their workforce, put expansion projects on hold, and even shut down some operations.
Luanshya Copper Mine closed its operations in December 2008, resulting in over 1,700 retrenchments, while several others, including Bwana Mkubwa, have retained only enough staff to maintain their pits.
In the wake of the mining sector's shrinking fortunes, households are battling to make ends meet and sex work has become a means of survival. "I was very disappointed when my uncle sent me away, but when I look back now, I think it was a good thing. It has taught me to be independent," said Mubanga.
"When business is good, I make over 200,000 kwacha [about US$36] in one night, but when things are not good I can knock off with something like 20,000 kwacha [$3.60]."
More experienced sex workers, like Belinda Zulu, who has been in the trade for six years, say business is at its lowest since mining activities resumed five years ago.
"This used to be Copperbelt when we could hook five, six or seven men per night, but now, sometimes you can go back home with nothing except transport money. For me now it only makes sense if I meet a client who wants 'live wire' [unprotected sex], for which I charge double the amount," Zulu told IRIN/PlusNews.
|I choose not to think about contracting HIV, but what I will eat today|
Asked if she wasn't worried about contracting HIV, Zulu said: "Everyone will die, whether of malaria, poverty, road accidents, or HIV - it is the same death. I choose not to think about contracting HIV, but what I will eat today with my four-year-old son and my niece at home."
Poverty, sex work and, inevitably, HIV/AIDS are closely intertwined in the Copperbelt, as elsewhere. The three largest towns in the province, Ndola, Kitwe and Chingola, have the country's highest HIV infection rate - 26.6 percent - compared to the national average of 15 percent. All three towns are also on the main trucking route between Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
"We have seen an increase in the number of sex workers during the last three months, but whether this is because of sex workers relocating from other towns where mines are closing, we really can't say," said Margaret Mwamba, of the Chingola District AIDS Task Force.
"Chingola has a lot of truckers; we are talking to [them] and distributing free condoms, but the demand for condoms is very high, and only the government is supporting us at the moment. We want to enter a partnership with Konkola Copper Mine so that we can source more condoms, otherwise we may soon have a lot of new [HIV] infections."
Mwansa Mbulakulima, provincial minister for Copperbelt, said government was conducting thorough research in all the mining towns before deciding on appropriate interventions.
"Even if this sex business is a very solemn issue, we can't rush into fighting it. We first have to fully understand how it is being precipitated, especially that such a thing is not only happening here in the Copperbelt but also in other provinces," he told IRIN/PlusNews.
"I can only advise our dear sisters that the answer doesn't lie in prostitution," Mbulakulima said. "If any time we have problems we have to resort to prostitution, it's not good, we shall all die ... they can do farming, or even business."