As Hunger Stalks Southern Africa,
HIV/AIDS is the Price Women Pay
new addition to the HEART is our
Inter Press Service - August 20, 2002
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 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
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.