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‘We Speak for the Dead’: Against Collective Vilification of the Victims of State-Sanctioned Poverty in Tanzania

It’s easy to blame the so-called prostitutes and persecute them while hiding behind the canopy of morality, a privilege often accorded to the elites and the haves.

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On a prominent wall behind the chair of a judge in a Canadian court, the words “We speak for the dead to protect the living” were enshrined. 

As lawyers and prosecutors pieced together evidence to uncover a cold-hearted murderer who had inhumanely claimed the lives of several women, I found my focus tilting from the details of the case to the inscription on the wall. Even when the curtains of this episode of this forensic files documentary were drawn and justice served, these words of responsibility lingered in my mind.

I scribble my opinion in this tablet not to speak for the dead denotatively but for those who are structurally victimised yet face state-sanctioned vilification. I refer to individuals labelled as “prostitutes” in Tanzania—people driven to rock bottom by government-endorsed poverty and criminalised when they attempt to survive their dire conditions.

It’s easy to blame these women while hiding behind the canopy of morality, a privilege often accorded to the elites and the haves. These individuals have the luxury of setting and universalising moral standards from their high-end dining tables filled with fruits, milk, and honey. 

To them, anything that deviates from their standards is deemed immoral, including the means of survival for those who can barely afford a meal a day. Blindfolded by their social privileges, they point fingers at the perceived immorality of those outside their circle of affluence, without addressing the root causes of such practices. 

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For those who have sworn to speak for the marginalised, it’s our moral duty to counter these dominant narratives and pressure the privileged to see beyond their sheltered realities.

In her book, The Truths We Hold, Kamala Harris, the current Vice President of the United States, states that speaking the truth is the first step in any endeavour for change. So, let’s table some facts: a recent study estimates that more than 150,000 women engage in prostitution in Dar es Salaam alone. 

Those who have lived in less privileged areas know this number is likely understated, as many women—married and single, young and old, educated and uneducated—earn their living in this growing industry. 

It would not be an overstatement to approximate the number of sex workers in Tanzania in the environment of one million or something close to that. The billion-dollar question is, why do these many women engage in prostitution?

Financial needs

Countless studies have pointed out repeatedly that women engage in the sex industry primarily due to financial needs. While some women may choose this path for other reasons, including their sexual desires, the majority are driven by financial strain. 

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Consider Tanzania as a case study: Minister of Finance Mwigulu Nchemba reported in his 2023 budget speech that more than 33 per cent of Tanzanians can hardly afford Sh49,000 Tanzanian a month to sustain their lives, with 26 per cent struggling below the food poverty line set at Sh33,000 a month.

Reflect on these numbers. Thirty-three per cent equates to more than 20 million Tanzanians. Even after lowering the poverty line to an expenditure of Sh1,600 a day, more than one-quarter of Tanzanians can hardly afford that. 

The number is even more alarming when considering the World Bank’s international poverty threshold of US$2.19 daily. As of the 2023 report, 45 per cent of Tanzanians were below this line, meaning that almost half of the population is impoverished. 

These people need to sustain themselves with basic necessities like food and shelter, do the same to their dependents, pay their bills, manage their children’s educational needs, and do all that we tend to take for granted.

Alternative means

Some moralists argue, “Poverty is not an excuse; they can engage in legal income-generating activities.” It’s easy to make this point from a position of privilege, but the real question should be, How? Poverty is not an excuse; it’s a fact. 

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Multiple sources report a double-digit youth unemployment rate in Tanzania in 2024, with the government generating employment opportunities at a snail’s pace. The Danish Trade Union Development Agency documented in 2022 that while nearly one million Tanzanians enter the labour force each year, only 60,000 formal employment opportunities are produced by both the private and government sectors. 

If we include low-skill opportunities, my review of Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa’s budget speeches for 2021, 2022, 2023, and 2024 indicates an average of 400,000 new employees annually, about 62 per cent of whom are in agriculture. 

For clarity, the integrated labour force survey of 2021 scales the average income of these employees at 160,000 a month. Given these stark realities, the few employment opportunities available are insufficient to meet the needs of millions, underscoring the inevitable need to seek supplemental income.

It’s true that if people were empowered in substantial numbers, there could be opportunities for self-employment. However, according to the TAMISEMI 2024 budget speech, Sh80 billion has been set aside for women’s and youth loans for the next budget year. 

The Youth Fund basket also loaned Sh1.27 billion last year and less than Sh5 billion in the past two years combined. This suggests that only a handful of people benefit from these funds, which are just a drop in the ocean, considering the demand.

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Compounding all this is the soaring cost of living, which keeps driving these already hard-pressed people into poverty. A litre of petrol and kerosene sold for Sh1,800 and Sh1,600 in 2016 now costs Sh3,300 and Sh2,840, respectively. 

A kilogramme of sugar sold for Sh1,700 in 2016 now costs more than twice the original price. It goes without saying that the people navigating this economic landscape often have at least three dependents to support. Now, ladies and gentlemen, can you tell me how in the world you expect these people to survive?

If you think deeply and perhaps with some sense of altruism, which is always buried within our conscience as human beings, you will realise that those young women you criminalise as prostitutes in places like Kaumba and Msamvu in Morogoro, Maeda-Sinza and Buguruni in Dar es Salaam, ChakoNiChako in Dodoma, or Shivaz in Arusha, are nothing but victims of state-sanctioned poverty trying to make ends meet. 

Speaking for the poor

They are innocent individuals in the lowest percentile of the GINI coefficient whose cries for help are brutally silenced and persecuted as moral criminals.

We all need to ask the moral patrollers: don’t your moral principles require you to speak for the poor and the oppressed? Didn’t the Bible teach you in Proverbs 31:9 to “Open your mouth, judge righteously, and plead the cause of the poor and needy?” 

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Aren’t you implored by Psalm 82:3 to “Defend the poor and fatherless; do justice to the afflicted and needy?” Isn’t it written in the Holy Quran, Surah An-Nisa verse 75, that you should fight for the helpless? Why are you persecuting the very people you are supposed to fight for?

In no way am I trying to justify prostitution. All I want is for you to see the other side of the coin, question the dominant narratives we are constantly fed against these people, and buckle up to fight the real enemy. I want you to see that these individuals resort to prostitution because it is the closest option they have to survive in this ruthless poverty. 

You might put them in jail—which I doubt we have enough of—scorn them with moral labels or even kill them if you can, but as long as they remain in their destitute state, they will never quit. The best they can do, probably out of fear, is to go undercover.

What if we spend more time fighting for social equity and establishing avenues to lift these people out of poverty? Doesn’t the moral police force see how much money is squandered financing our president’s foreign trips, using a 360-passenger flight for private travel? 

Don’t you read the CAG reports and see how much money is lost due to embezzlement, looting, and irresponsibility among our leaders? Can’t you see how much money is wasted on financing CCM political rallies, unnecessary motorcades, luxurious cars for leaders, the outdated national torch, and countless other drains on public funds that have nothing to do with the public good?

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This is the money that could provide loans to the so-called “prostitutes,” skill, reskill, and upskill them; finance large irrigation schemes that could employ millions of people; and improve our education system, which currently produces millions of people who end up becoming rejects in the employment market. 

Our people, both young and old, are forced into prostitution, gambling, pickpocketing, drug abuse, looting, and other immoral activities because you, the “good people,” have allowed public funds to be squandered. 

You have allowed a few to live as saints at the expense of millions who are constantly subjected to modern-day slavery. Worse yet, you have allowed this impunity by distorting objective reality and shifting the blame to the victims.

I will close by saying this: we can either tell ourselves a painful truth that pushes us toward actual change or keep massaging our backs with lies that make us feel good now while our social vessel is sinking. 

Whatever we choose, time will judge us all. To remind you, the people you feel content to crucify with shameful labels and force today have no privilege to consider the moral side of their deeds as they embark on them out of necessity. 

I hope I have spoken for the dead; those with ears, let them hear.

Onesmo Mushi is a U.S.-based Tanzanian activist and educationalist. He can be reached at or on X as @EduTalkTz. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of The Chanzo. If you are interested in publishing in this space, please contact our editors at

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The Chanzo is hosting Digital Freedom and Innovation Day on Saturday April 20, 2024 at Makumbusho ya Taifa.

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