A narrow hallway leads to a makeshift wooden counter where a shelf displays a few empty beer cans and soft drink bottles; a side door opens to a corridor with a series of bedrooms, almost all of them occupied. This is the 25 de Setembro Social Centre, one of the largest brothels in Chimoio, capital of Mozambique's central province of Manica.
The establishment has six in-house sex workers, who see an average of 30 clients a day. "There are only three rooms left. One of them costs 300 meticals [US$12] and the other two cost 100 meticals [$4]," said Jochua*, 47, who acts as both guard and pimp.
This is where you sometimes find Trish Mwamutara, 32. Although she is not one of the resident prostitutes, a friend lets her bring her clients to the Centre. Mwamutara left a career as an administrative assistant at a rope factory in Zimbabwe.
"I came to Mozambique to sell sheets, but my friends convinced me to become a prostitute, because it's a very profitable business and can help you get through the financial crisis, so I accepted," she said.
Many Zimbabwean women, like Mwamutara, cross the border to Mozambique to escape the economic crisis and food shortages in their home country, but a growing number of them end up having to turn to commercial sex to survive.
Marília Pugas, head doctor at the Manica Provincial Health Department, said the number of sex workers coming from Zimbabwe had increased in the past few years. The women are highly vulnerable to HIV, mainly due to the difference in price between sex with a condom ($3) and unprotected sex ($10).
"The situation was already worrisome and there was a need to reduce the number of prostitutes, in addition to safeguarding the health of our compatriots, since not all of these prostitutes are healthy," said Pugas.
Under the pretext of defending the health system, the Mozambican police have been conducting "Operation Broom" since 2008, in which the brothels and barracas – places where sex workers live and sell alcohol to their clients – are being dismantled and the Zimbabwean sex workers deported.
''There was a need to reduce the number of prostitutes, in addition to safeguarding the health of our compatriots, since not all of these prostitutes are healthy''
Five sweeps were carried out in Manica in 2008, leading to the repatriation of more than 400 Zimbabwean sex workers, most of them with expired Mozambican entry visas.
The operations were coordinated by the police and health authorities, and concentrated on the main "sex stops" along the Beira transport corridor, which runs from the port city of Beira, on the Mozambican coast, to Harare, capital of Zimbabwe, and includes the cities of Manica and Chimoio, the town of Gôndola and the administrative post of Inchope.
The Mozambican sex workers in the establishments had two options: if they were over 18, they were detained for a week; if they were minors, they were handed over to their families. Not even the foreigners who were in Mozambique legally were able to escape deportation.
"There is a flagrant violation of human rights in the form of discrimination in these operations," said Isidro Rackson of the Human Rights League. "The reason these women are being deported violates foreigners' right to free circulation and living in Mozambique."
But Pedro Jemusse, of the public relations department at the provincial police headquarters in Manica, maintained that Operation Broom would take place "whenever it is necessary."
SEX WORKERS AS AGENTS FOR CHANGE?
The 2006 national survey on AIDS prevention found that commercial sex was a common practice in Mozambique: 46 percent of those interviewed, mainly in the central and northern regions of the country, had paid for sex, and there were some 30,000 sex workers with a total of 125,000 clients.
A number of NGOs, including the Organisation of Female AIDS Educators (known by the Portuguese-language acronym OMES), in the city of Chimoio, have been urging health officials to view the Zimbabwean sex workers as allies in the response to HIV in Mozambique.
OMES works to turn sex workers in Manica into activists by teaching them to raise awareness of condom use and health care among their clients. "It's hard to encourage sex workers to abandon their profession, but turning them into AIDS activists is a less complicated task," said Maria Clara Paulo, the OMES coordinator in Manica.
The initiative is already showing results: since 2007, 150 sex workers have become activists, 30 of them from Zimbabwe. OMES activist Judithy Tchipo, 23, said many clients knew about the importance of condoms, even though some of them believed they could stop using them after their second or third time with the same woman.
"Some of us have cut off our relationships with clients when they refuse to use a condom - this has been the only way to force them to use prophylactics. If they don't, there's no sex," she said.
According to Paulo, the results have been encouraging. "In addition to adhering to the programme, many of them have reduced their daily number of partners. We've also seen activists abandoning sexual work to dedicate themselves exclusively to AIDS awareness-raising."