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As Hunger Stalks Southern Africa, HIV/AIDS is the Price Women Pay

Inter Press Service - August 20, 2002
Pen Dale


SHIMABALA, Zambia, Aug 20 (IPS) -- Eunice Mulenga trades sex for food.

The 38-year-old is one of a growing number of Zambian women who say they have little choice but to have sex with men so that they can feed hungry mouths at home.

The single mother of three is caught up in the double emergency faced by Southern African countries: not only is the deadly danger of famine stalking at least 13 million people, but the sub-Saharan region is also the epicentre of the global AIDS epidemic.

In Botswana the infection rate of the HIV virus that causes AIDS is 38.8 percent, Zimbabwe 33.7 percent, Swaziland 33.4 percent, Lesotho 31 percent, Namibia 22.5 percent, Zambia 21.5 percent and South Africa 20.1 percent.

Out of these seven countries, only South Africa is free from this year's devastating drought endangering the lives of millions of people. Out of the nearly 13 million people at risk of impending starvation, up to 20 percent of them are infected with HIV/AIDS, according to the UN's World Food Programme (WFP).

The high HIV/AIDS infection rate is exacerbating the food crisis, according to a recent Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) report. Subsistence farmers, who make up the bulk of most countries' populations, are struggling to produce enough food to survive.

"The disease is no longer a health problem alone, but is having a measurable impact on food production, household food security and rural people's ability to make a living," the report said.


According to WFP's Representative to Zambia Richard Ragan, "For the families of people living with HIV/AIDS, food is also a primary concern. When the family's breadwinner becomes ill, families are often forced to sell off productive assets, spend their savings on food and medicine, and withdraw children from school to put them to work or to care for sick adults. Food consumption has been shown to drop by as much as 40 percent in households affected by HIV/AIDS."

Female-headed households are the most vulnerable. Women who have their own children often have the added burden of looking after the children of dead relatives and friends.

But a problem that is only just coming to light is the impact the food crisis is having on the already high incidence of HIV/AIDS.

According to the most recent UNAIDS report, the Global HIV/AIDS Epidemic, published ahead of the Barcelona conference in July, mass migration, economic upheaval and other social factors, including not having enough food to eat, have increased the number of people at risk of acquiring HIV.

More and more women are resorting to bartering sex for food, often without the use of a condom, therefore putting themselves and others at risk of becoming infected with the HIV virus. Where food is most scarce, the report warns, HIV prevalence is alarmingly high.

Like other countries in the southern African region, Zambia is faced with the worst food crisis in 10 years.

Close to 3 million people, out of a population of 10 million, are in dire need of emergency food relief after two years of erratic weather - floods last year and a severe drought this year - wiped out harvests in traditional food-producing areas in the south of the country.

Peri-urban people, like Mulenga are also feeling the pinch as shortages push up food prices.

Mulenga says she rarely uses condoms and knows she is putting herself at risk. She says she has little choice.

"The problem is that men refuse to wear a condom. I'm aware of the dangers but I need the money and so I'm willing to risk infection so that I can feed my family," she told IPS.

"I feel bad and I feel unhappy but I need the money," she says, adding that, "I've been left with small children who wouldn't eat all day and wouldn't go to school if I didn't have sex with men."

The disturbing trend is neither restricted to Zambia nor Mulenga. More women in Shimabala village are having sex with men this year because there is not enough food, Mulenga says.


The so-called village provides fertile ground for sex work. About 30 kms from the capital Lusaka, Shimabala sprawls alongside the main road south from Lusaka to Livingstone on the Zimbabwe border.

In recent years, the population has exploded, reaching about 1,000 people, and it is a hive of activity, full of bars and hotels. It is a resting place for truck drivers transporting goods from South Africa to Lusaka and close by is a semi-permanent camp for road contractors, many of whom Mulenga says have the money to pay for sex with local women.

Caro Tembo is another Shimabala resident who has also resorted to selling her body for food since the food crisis tightened its grip on the country.

The emotional burden is intense, she says.

"I feel ashamed, people are starting to talk about me but I have no education, so I don't have any other way of earning money," the 32-year-old single mother of two told IPS.

Many single mothers say they have been pushed into sex work because of the hunger situation and because they have no husbands.

"If I had a husband, I wouldn't have to go with other men," Tembo says. "My husband would at least be able to give me some money to pay for the food."

Tembo complains that even the money she earns by having sex with men, on average about 5000 kwacha (just over a dollar) feeds her family with the staple food maize and vegetable for only a couple of days.

The price of the current food shortages for women like Mulenga and Tembo, and future generations, could be much higher.