Fighting HIV and AIDS along the Corridors and Borders in Southern Africa

By | 1 December 2008

The transport sector recognizes the many risk factors and vulnerabilities related to the transmission of HIV and the impact thereof. These increased vulnerability of the sector and its high prevalent rates are mainly due to the difficult working conditions in the sector which require employees to travel long distances and spend long periods of time away from their families and social networks that would otherwise serve as a buffer to HIV transmission.

The lengthy delays at several border posts caused by complex clearance procedures and the non-harmonized border formalities particularly for example at Beitbridge border with Zimbabwe which is the busiest southern port of entry.The road transport sub-sector, in particular is diverse in its operations and the HIV and AIDS response has taken that fact into consideration in responding to the impact of HIV and AIDS in the transport sector. It is in this context that the ILO Transport Sector Project is currently implementing a programme code named the “Corridor Strategic Approach” to the fight against HIV and AIDS with the strategic stakeholders along the road corridors and the adjoining borders.  This approach offers both technical and financial support to truckers, border post officials and communities along a selected number of road corridors in Southern Africa.  Transport workers and communities along this corridor are not only at risk of HIV infection, they also play a significant role in reducing the spread and impact of the pandemic given the right kind of support, both technical and financial.

In Mozambique, the ILO is carrying out cross border interventions to scale up the preventions initiatives and mitigate the impact of HIV and AIDS for communities and truck drivers in three development corridors – Maputo in the south, Beira in the centre and the Nacala corridor which connects Malawi in the North.  Working through the SINTRAT, the project implements awareness raising campaigns for transport workers and sensitize communities and truck drivers in borders and in hot stop points as an integral part of support provided to the partners in the areas of capacity building for activists and peer educators in the workplace. “Before we started with advocacy on HIV and AIDS in the workplace, it seems to us that stigma and discrimination was very high in some companies and immigration, but now colleagues are open concerning their status and they live openly and seek support” says Naftal Simbine, SINTRAT General Secretary.

In collaboration with local transport authorities, Customs and the Immigration in Zimbabwe, a series of prevention and impact mitigation activities are taking place. These include on the one hand efforts to harmonize laws and regulations and on the other awareness-raising and capacity building with truckers, health workers,  vendors, customs and immigration officials as well as with sex workers at Beitbridge border post.  Care and support services are also included in the Corridor programme with the aim of improving health services and access to treatment.  At a recent capacity building workshop for beneficiaries of the corridor approach programme, one of the sex workers that took part in the programme gave an extensive interview to help the programme understand the risks and vulnerabilities of the truckers and communities along the southern corridor.  The interview (copy attached) brings home the fact that truckers, communities along the southern corridor and sex workers are exposed to high levels of risk in terms of HIV, but even more important it shows that sex workers want to be engaged in reducing the spread and impact of the epidemic.

Evidenced based research has demonstrated that groups in the labour market that work under migratory and mobile circumstances are more likely to display higher levels of HIV susceptibility given their exposure to unstable and risky working and living conditions.  High HIV prevalent sectors commonly include the transport and construction sectors because general work environments in these sectors create conditions for high HIV susceptibility as a result of workers being away from their partners and families for extended periods and with sufficient disposable income to spend on sex workers or to engage in multiple sexual relationships.

Transport workers maintaining road infrastructure in Limpopo Province of South Africa fall in the category of the migratory and mobile workforce.  They spend most of their time on the road and reside in camps far away from their homes for extended periods of time.  Depending on the distance from their homes, other workers visit their families monthly or on a quarterly basis.  Constant movement and being away from home for extended period of time influence them in resorting to having multiple sexual partners with people living in the communities along road corridors they are maintaining.  This increases their risk of HIV infection. This prompted the ILO/SIDA Transport Sector Project and the Limpopo Department of Road and Transport’s Employee Wellness Programme to train 28 Trainers of Peer Educators from all districts in the Limpopo Province in August 2008.  The platform has now been established for training additional 300 peer educators to provide information and counselling services on HIV and AIDS and to form local partnerships to facilitate easy access to health services by workers engaged in road infrastructure maintenance and construction.

Despite the recent gains made in the fight against the pandemic, Malawi is believed to have one of the highest HIV prevalence rate in the world with its adult prevalence rate ranging between 11.2 to 17.7 %.  Part of the rapid spread of HIV in Malawi has been attributed to the geographical mobility of truck drivers, who have been identified as a male occupational group at high risk of sexually transmitted disease (STD) and HIV infection.  Studies indicate that areas with high intensive transport operations (hot spots) present opportunities for high transmission because of the high level of sexual contact among mobile populations like drivers, their assistants, people who work in the construction and maintenance sites, travellers and their partners (mostly commercial sex workers).  Commercial sex workers recess in the truck stops/towns along the highway where there are bars, lodges and restaurants so as to target mobile people particularly drivers as their clients, a practice that is common along the Mwanza (Malawi/Mozambique) and Songwe (Malawi/Tanzania) borders.

A rapid assessment recently conducted by the ILO/SIDA Transport Sector Project found that 25% of transport sector workers lack proper information on the pandemic as evidenced by incorrect definitions of HIV and AIDS.  One Malawi Lake Services employee with tertiary education had the following definition: ‘HIV is a sexually transmitted disease while AIDS is a sexually transmitted disease caused by a virus’.  Also, a good number of transport sector workers along the corridors are neither aware nor afraid of the effects of HIV and AIDS.  A Malawian long distance truck driver who had recently had sex without protection had this to say: “South African women are irresistibly beautiful that you desire to have plain sex with one”.

The above scenario demonstrates in clear terms the need for continuous intensification of education and awareness interventions in the transport workplaces especially for all the major cross borders and corridor authorities. The emerging programmes must include interventions for communities along the corridors and borders for these to make any meaningful impact on the HIV and AIDS landscape.

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