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Female Refugees Are Being Forced to Sell Sex to Survive Southern Africa’s Drought

A severe drought in southern Africa has caused a spike in "transactional sex" — a term describing the exchange of sexual services for food or other vital goods, a common refugee camp phenomenon.
Refugees at Malawi's Dzaleka camp, formerly an internment center for political prisoners. Photo by Henry Wilkins

The worst drought to hit southern Africa in decades has left millions of people in a state of severe food insecurity. For women in the region's refugee camps, the desperate need to feed themselves and their children has left many forced to sell the only commodity they have left to trade – their body.

In 2009, Liziuzayani Kachingwe, 23, arrived in Malawi with her baby son after seeing all 11 of her siblings killed during conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). For six years she lived in relative safety at the Dzaleka refugee camp, around 26 miles north of Malawi's capital Lilongwe.


Home to almost 25,000 people who have fled war and natural disaster elsewhere in the region, in June 2015 a lack of funds led the World Food Programme (WFP) to cut food rations at the camp in half.

Kachingwe was forced to beg, borrow, and barter whatever she could to provide for herself and her son. Like many female refugees, this meant engaging in "transactional sex" — also known as "survival sex" — to acquire the goods she needed to keep the pair alive.

"Any man that came with money I would accept just to feed my child. I feel lucky that I'm not infected with HIV," she told VICE News.

Liziuzayani Kachingwe says she was forced to engage in transactional sex to keep her and her son alive. (Photo by Henry Wilkins)

Kachingwe says her her involvement in transactional sex ended when she became romantically involved with a married man who agreed to treat her like his wife — but she was forced back into survival sex after he turned against her when she became pregnant and subsequently suffered a miscarriage.

More gender-based violence was to follow. After being discharged from hospital she says the man tried to attack her, forcing her to take refuge at a home for church members. The man had refused to offer any support with her medical bills or living costs, and when she asked him to help her buy the drugs she had been prescribed, he became violent.

"I failed to complete my prescription for a low red blood cell count from the hospital because I had inadequate food [to sell]," she said. "I'm wondering how I'll survive or whether I'll be able to conceive in the future."


Another refugee forced into survival sex at Dzaleka is Jetta Botende, 27, who arrived four months ago after fleeing the DRC. She says while she originally left her homeland with her husband, they separated during the journey because he was violent towards her.

"I fled with my husband, but we divorced in Zambia, so I am here alone," she told VICE News.

Botende says she is forced into transactional sex because she cannot survive on her monthly food allowance.

"I got 23 kilograms of maize at the monthly distributions. But this was only enough to last for three weeks," she said.

The Dzaleka refugee camp, around 26 miles north of Malawi's capital Lilongwe, is home to almost 25,000 people. (Photo by Henry Wilkins)

Aid agencies consulted by VICE News said the cut in rations that has driven so many women into survival sex was a result of a shortage of United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) funds for Malawi, combined with the country being hit by the effects of a devastating drought seen across the region in 2015 — effects exacerbated by the severity of the El Niño effect last year.

In January, the UNHCR warned refugees had been receiving just 40 percent of their recommended minimum daily calories over the previous six months, leaving many on the brink of malnutrition. According to Plan International, an NGO which operates at Dzaleka, a lack of food was one of the main drivers of survival sex and gender-based violence in the camp.

Food rations were restored last month after a successful funding drive by the UNHCR, but they will run out again in June unless more funding is obtained. According to Muriel Ilungwa, an aid worker for Plan International, the effect of restoring rations was almost instant.


"When the food rations returned to normal we saw [a drop] in cases of gender-based violence and transactional sex," she told VICE News.

Related: Rape and Sexual Assault Are Being Used As a Weapon in South Sudan, Says UN

Ilungwa says Plan International seeks to reduce survival sex by providing extra food to the women involved.

"We cannot provide [extra food] to everyone, but we help people with HIV and AIDs, people with a disability, widows, and women involved in transactional sex," she said.

Survival sex is common in refugee camps around the world, and is known to be used by female refugees and migrants to secure services such as transport from human smugglers. In October 2015, the UNHCR voiced its concerned about "credible testimonies" of sexual violence and abuse against female refugees and migrants moving through Europe. In many such cases, the line between survival sex and rape remains blurred.

"From testimony and reports we have received there have been instances of children engaging in survival sex to pay smugglers to continue their journey, either because they have run out money, or because they have been robbed," UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming told a news conference in Geneva at the time.

Refugees wait at a food distribution point in Malawi's Dzaleka camp. (Photo by Henry Wilkins)

According to a study published last year by NGO Hivos International, 80 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon are women and children, who are highly vulnerable to violence and sexual exploitation in the underfunded camps. Incidences of sexual exploitation have also been reported among women in the Calais refugee camp.


In southern Africa the lack of aid money is seriously exacerbating the sexual exploitation and violence against women.

Despite humanitarian organizations warning the region's drought is even more serious than that which famously devastated the region in 1984, it remains relatively out of the public consciousness in the West, which is more focused on Europe's migrant crisis and humanitarian crises in Syria and Yemen.

Meanwhile countries such as Zimbabwe and Malawi warn that millions face starvation unless urgent action is taken by the international community. According to the WFP, $38 million is needed to deal with the crisis in Malawi alone.

And as long as that funding it not forthcoming, the thousands living in Dzaleka will continue to suffer, with UNHCR representative for Malawi Monique Ekoko saying it is women who often bear the brunt.

"We have really had difficulties coming up with funding for the refugees," Ekoko told VICE News. "When there's no food to eat, a hungry man is an angry man."

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Related: Millions Face Food Shortages as El Niño Fuels Africa's Worst Drought in Decades