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Sex workers take up AIDS fight

MOMBASA, November 28 – Interventions to HIV/AIDS pandemic have intensified with a majority of groups dealing with commercial sex workers in Mombasa promising to join programmes working to reduce the spread of the disease.

Capital News spoke to the Deputy Country Director of the International Centre for Reproductive Health-Kenya (ICRH) Nzioka Kingola on the steps the centre is taking to address HIV/AIDS among commercial sex workers who said they were working closely with them to reduce the problems they face.

 “We encourage commercial sex workers to get involved in the fight against HIV/AIDS to ensure they stop the spread as well as manage it if they are infected,” he said.

Mr Kingola pointed out that ICRH focused on Female Sex Workers (FSW) and Male Sex Workers (MSW).

The main emphasis however is not necessarily to stop them from engaging in sexual activities but to ensure they access health services, change their behaviour especially by reducing the number of sex partners as well as sensitise them on HIV/AIDS.

They also offer soft loans to help the sex workers begin small businesses hoping they can rely on the incomes and abandon sex work.

He said ICRH together with partners like United Nations Population Fund had set up 2 FSW groups in Likoni and Kisauni each with 40 peer educators to work with female commercial sex workers in those areas.

They have also designed three projects in Mombasa, Likoni and Kisauni to help men who have sex with other men to access health services.

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However in Malindi the outreach was shut down following opposition by a section of a religious group who claimed they were promoting homosexuality.

Mr Kingola said through the 200 peer educators, ICRH had made remarkable progress resulting in the increased use of condoms and a reduction in the number of sex partners.

He said in the year 2000, only 29 per cent of the female sex workers were using condoms but following ICRH’s interventions, by 2005 the number of those using protection had increased to 71 per cent.

He put the estimates of FSW in Coast Province at 8,000 during the low tourist season and 12,000 during the high season.

“However we are planning to do an enumeration next year in January because currently these are the working figures, the number could even be higher,” he said.

Insist on protection

Female sex workers at the Likoni Centre told Capital News that they insisted to their clients to use condoms at all times.

“After I came to this centre I was tested and told I was HIV positive.  I know I can get re-infected if I have unsafe sex.  Anytime I have a client I ask them to use a condom but some of them refuse, and since I am in business I cannot disclose my status.  I go ahead, but I always try my best to convince them to use a condom,” one of them said.

Another peer educator who has been in the business for 8 years said: “Since I tested negative, I have never had unsafe sex, if someone refuses, I take off, but it is not easy since without protection the more the money, but since I know the dangers, I would rather get that Sh200 than Sh5,000 plus HIV.”

Most of them also said due to the fear of HIV they had cut down on the number of partners and in fact some of them had already given up commercial sex work after knowing their status.

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Another important role they play is appealing to other commercial sex workers to join their groups and also sensitise them on HIV/AIDS.

In the course of their jobs, they also use the opportunity to drop condoms at the main night spots in Mombasa and its environs.

“However, we are not happy to be doing this job.  Sometimes we are beaten up, forced to have sex without condoms and are exposed to extremists who do weird things to us.  Our hope is that we can get jobs to sustain our families.  We are likewise afraid of HIV/AIDS,” said a 24 year old mother of one. 

Men on men

Male sex workers too have not been left out in responding to HIV/AIDS. Through their three groups, they discuss HIV and ensure they use protection as well.

One of them told Capital News: “Most of us thought we could not get or transmit HIV because women were not involved, but after this project I know I am also at risk and I am always careful, together with my fellow peer educators we talk to our partners urging them to use condoms,” he said.

“We can now also access medical care unlike before where we were afraid of saying we had infections in such places.  Doctors used to wonder how we got those infections, and due to discrimination in this country men who have sex with other men could not go to hospital.”

Mr Kingola also revealed that they had recorded 737 male commercial sex workers.

“We are intending to have proper statistics since homosexuality is not just a problem here.  It is widespread because most of those we spoke to have networks as far as to North Eastern, and everywhere else in the country, but the idea is to sensitise them on HIV/AIDS.”

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