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“The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.”

  


 

Sex Workers Join Efforts to Contain Spread of AIDS


HEALTH-SOUTHERN AFRICA:
James Hall


MBABANE, Aug 8 (IPS) - Commercial sex workers are not responsible for
the rise in AIDS cases regionally, but their activities do
contribute, and efforts to contain the spread of HIV now include
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 like
commercial truckers and contract workers, and about changing morals,"
Alec Dube, a sociologist with the University of Swaziland, told IPS.

Dube has been studying commercial sex workers as part of an
initiative called Corridors of Hope. The HIV-containment programme,
sponsored by the Family Life Association of Swaziland, recognises the
reality of prostitution in the most mobile profession of all, the
modern highwaymen of long-distance taxi and bus drivers, and
truckers.

  


 



Because they turn to prostitutes for sex, long distance truck drivers
are at high risk of contracting HIV when they find their sex on the
road, health ministry studies have shown. The Corridors of Hope
programme uses commercial sex workers to bring condoms and AIDS
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 overdue,"
the manager of a trucking firm at the Matsapha Industrial Estate in
Swaziland told IPS.

Sex workers are being trained by the Family Life Association of
Swaziland as "peer educators," and provided with condoms and
literature by Population Services International (PSI). The U.S. Aid
for International Development (USAID) is financing the project.

Thus far, 20 commercial sex workers have been trained and posted at
Oshoek border gate at South Africa, which is used by most road
freight traffic to and from Johannesburg and Pretoria. Ten "peer
educators" will be attached to the Lavumisa border gate connecting
Swaziland with the South African province KwaZulu/Natal. Ten other
prostitutes trained by the programme now operate at the Lomahasha
border with Mozambique.

"Fifteen commercial sex workers will be recruited in both Manzini and
Mbabane, because when truckers finish their jobs, they go to those
towns," Jerome Shongwe, programme coordinator for Corridors of Hope,
told IPS.

In addition to promoting safe sex themselves, the peer educators will
hopefully instil the message among their clients, and other sex
workers.

Itinerate professionals, like long-distance truck drivers, have
fallen outside previous AIDS awareness campaigns because they are
never in one place to receive messages and counselling, like other
company workers.

Commercial sex workers have also eluded AIDS containment projects
thus far.

  


 



"There has been some discomfort in the past in dealing with
commercial sex workers, mostly because of the morality factor.
Remember, many hospitals and clinics in Southern Africa were founded
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 do anything
to save people from the pandemic, and are going to places they've
never entered before, like brothels," Kunene said.

Social welfare workers like South African psychiatrist Dr. Beatrice
Simelane have viewed commercial sex workers as a by-product of
economic hard times.

"Unemployment, lack of opportunities, especially for women, and
changing social structures like the break-up of the traditional
family have all played a role in the rise of prostitution in Southern
Africa. Even before AIDS, prostitutes could contract more traditional
sexually transmitted diseases. But girls faced with the bare
necessity to survive had little recourse but to sell themselves, they
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 the
occupation is extremely fluid. Women get out of the profession as
soon as they can, but often return to it when they have to. Also, it
is an occupation of opportunity, when opportunity arises," she said.

Commercial sex workers are often an ad hoc association of women in
need of earnings who appear wherever men congregate on jobs. They can
be found at places where long-distance truck drivers rest for the
night. Where soldiers are posted, they can be found. Where workers
hostels are erected beside mines and factories, commercial sex
workers also migrate.

A study by Botswana's Ministry of Health found a direct correlation
between the rise of AIDS-related deaths and the construction of
highways through the affected areas. Several years after the highway
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 have full-
blown disease, many of them linked to the construction of the
highways.

"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 area
where the highways were being built. Either way, HIV was spread.
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 and
other initiatives. Prostitution is still illegal in all 14-member
states of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), and
efforts to involve sex workers in AIDS prevention programmes are not
seen as a way of legitimising the occupation in preparation for
legalisation.

"We are just recognising reality, the way people behave," said
Kunene. Adds Simelane: "Nobody likes prostitution compared to other
types of sexual relationships. Even prostitutes would prefer other
less dangerous and more respectable work. But while they are with us,
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, according to
the World Health Organisation (WHO). South Africa alone has five
million people living with the disease