Age Matters: determinants of sexual and reproductive health vulnerabilities amongst young women who sell sex (16–24 years) in Zimbabwe.
Crankshaw, Tamaryn L.
Poku, Nana K.
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Introduction: Female sex workers bear a disproportionate burden of HIV and other poor sexual and reproductive health (SRH) outcomes which has led to the tailoring of SRH interventions to mitigate risk. Understanding of the SRH vulnerabilities of young women who sell sex (YWSS) (16–24 years) in Southern Africa is under-represented in research which may result in a mismatch in current SRH interventions and service design. Objective: This paper is based on a sub-analysis of a qualitative study investigating the SRH of young women who sell sex (16–24 years) in Zimbabwe. We explored the differences in dynamics of SRH vulnerability amongst YWSS within the 16–24 year age band. Methods: In-depth interviews (IDIs) were conducted amongst key informants (n = 4), health care providers (n = 5), and peer educators (n = 16). Amongst YWSS, we conducted IDIs (n = 42) and focus group discussions (n = 30). Transcripts were inductively coded for emergent themes and categories. Results: Age and life stage determinants led to key differences in SRH vulnerabilities between younger (16–19 years) and older YWSS (20–24 years). These determinants emerged in the following ways: 1) distancing of younger participants from a “sex worker” identity leading to difficulties in identification and limiting intervention reach, 2) inexperience in dealing with clients and immature cognitive development leading to greater exposure to risk, and 3) the subordinate social position and exploitation of young participants within sex worker hierarchies or networks and lack of protective networks. Conclusions: We highlight the presence of a diverse group of vulnerable young women who may be missed by sex worker programme responses. In future intervention planning, there is need to consider the age-related needs and vulnerabilities within a spectrum of young women involved in a wide range of transactional relationships to ensure that services reach those most vulnerable to poor SRH outcomes.