Sex Workers Join Efforts to Contain Spread of AIDS
MBABANE, Aug 8 (IPS) - Commercial sex workers are not
the rise in AIDS cases regionally, but their activities do
contribute, and efforts to contain the spread of HIV now
members of the world's oldest profession.
"The activities of commercial sex workers tell
researchers much about
societies in a stage of transition, about mobile lifestyles
commercial truckers and contract workers, and about changing
Alec Dube, a sociologist with the University of Swaziland,
Dube has been studying commercial sex workers as part of an
initiative called Corridors of Hope. The HIV-containment
sponsored by the Family Life Association of Swaziland,
reality of prostitution in the most mobile profession of all,
modern highwaymen of long-distance taxi and bus drivers, and
Because they turn to prostitutes for sex, long distance truck
are at high risk of contracting HIV when they find their sex
road, health ministry studies have shown. The Corridors of
programme uses commercial sex workers to bring condoms and
awareness information to road freight haulers.
"We have lost too many valuable drivers, and the
absenteeism we are
seeing now shows we will lose many more. This initiative is
the manager of a trucking firm at the Matsapha Industrial
Swaziland told IPS.
Sex workers are being trained by the Family Life Association
Swaziland as "peer educators," and provided with
literature by Population Services International (PSI). The
for International Development (USAID) is financing the
Thus far, 20 commercial sex workers have been trained and
Oshoek border gate at South Africa, which is used by most road
freight traffic to and from Johannesburg and Pretoria. Ten
educators" will be attached to the Lavumisa border gate
Swaziland with the South African province KwaZulu/Natal. Ten
prostitutes trained by the programme now operate at the
border with Mozambique.
"Fifteen commercial sex workers will be recruited in both
Mbabane, because when truckers finish their jobs, they go to
towns," Jerome Shongwe, programme coordinator for
Corridors of Hope,
In addition to promoting safe sex themselves, the peer
hopefully instil the message among their clients, and other
Itinerate professionals, like long-distance truck drivers,
fallen outside previous AIDS awareness campaigns because they
never in one place to receive messages and counselling, like
Commercial sex workers have also eluded AIDS containment
"There has been some discomfort in the past in dealing
commercial sex workers, mostly because of the morality factor.
Remember, many hospitals and clinics in Southern Africa were
by European missionaries, and are still funded by religious
organisations," nurse Agnes Kunene told IPS.
An international health disaster like AIDS, which respects no
borders, is changing attitudes. "Health policymakers will
to save people from the pandemic, and are going to places
never entered before, like brothels," Kunene said.
Social welfare workers like South African psychiatrist Dr.
Simelane have viewed commercial sex workers as a by-product of
economic hard times.
"Unemployment, lack of opportunities, especially for
changing social structures like the break-up of the
family have all played a role in the rise of prostitution in
Africa. Even before AIDS, prostitutes could contract more
sexually transmitted diseases. But girls faced with the bare
necessity to survive had little recourse but to sell
have told us," Simelane said.
Neither Simelane nor others care to speculate on the number of
commercial sex workers operating in Southern Africa.
"Certainly, the number is in the tens of thousands, but
occupation is extremely fluid. Women get out of the profession
soon as they can, but often return to it when they have to.
is an occupation of opportunity, when opportunity
arises," she said.
Commercial sex workers are often an ad hoc association of
need of earnings who appear wherever men congregate on jobs.
be found at places where long-distance truck drivers rest for
night. Where soldiers are posted, they can be found. Where
hostels are erected beside mines and factories, commercial sex
workers also migrate.
A study by Botswana's Ministry of Health found a direct
between the rise of AIDS-related deaths and the construction
highways through the affected areas. Several years after the
projects appeared, cases of HIV grew into full-blown AIDS, and
affected persons died of opportunistic diseases.
Nearly 40 percent of adults in Botswana are HIV positive or
blown disease, many of them linked to the construction of the
"Disease pathologists traced the cause of the deaths back
to when the
highways were being built. Construction workers had sex with
commercial sex workers, or they had sex with the women of the
where the highways were being built. Either way, HIV was
After a five to 10-year incubation period, AIDS mortalities
appeared," said nurse Kunene.
Such studies led to the instigation of the Corridors of Hope
other initiatives. Prostitution is still illegal in all
states of the Southern African Development Community (SADC),
efforts to involve sex workers in AIDS prevention programmes
seen as a way of legitimising the occupation in preparation
"We are just recognising reality, the way people
Kunene. Adds Simelane: "Nobody likes prostitution
compared to other
types of sexual relationships. Even prostitutes would prefer
less dangerous and more respectable work. But while they are
commercial sex workers cannot be ignored."
Nearly 30 million people in Africa are living with HIV/AIDS,
including three million children under the age of 15,
the World Health Organisation (WHO). South Africa alone has
million people living with the disease