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Refugee Camps Attract Sex Workers, And AIDS

By Alpha Nuhu, Panafrican News Agency, 5 January 2001

Dar es Salaam, Tanzania - An upsurge of Burundian and Congolese refugees has ignited a wave of women seeking fortunes in the sex industry in Tanzania.

Hundreds of women from rural and urban Tanzania are streaming to refugee camps, located in the western Kigoma province, to engage in commercial sex.

The province, sharing the border with neighbouring Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, hosts more than 70,000 refugees who have escaped civil wars in the two states.

Women craving for wealth are driven by the good salaries paid to workers of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other international and local NGOs working in the camps, a recent study by the UN Development Programme says.

The big salaries paid to UNHCR and NGOs workers have stirred an influx of women dreaming to become rich overnight through commercial sex, the study adds.

The sex trade has attracted women of all social classes, ranging from bar maids, housewives to office workers who turn into hookers at night to supplement their meagre incomes.

The women's rush for money has alarmed Tanzanian health officials who fear that the movement would propel the fast spread of the AIDS scourge.

Like other 24 provinces of the country, Kigoma has also been ravaged by the incurable disease since the first case was reported in the country in 1983. As of January, the Lake Tanganyika province had 2,287 cumulative hospital reported cases of AIDS, according to the UNDP survey.

Youths and women in refugee camps, villages, work places, fishing and mining centres are the vulnerable group infected with HIV/AIDS, the study says.

It shows that during the day, fishing, mining and commercial centres conduct normal trading activities but become hot spots for commercial sex at night.

Interaction of Kigoma people with refugees and the migration of youths from rural to urban centres has fuelled the vulnerability of people to HIV/AIDS infection as guest houses are mostly used for commercial sex, Elly Ndyetabura, a UNDP programme officer, says.

The booming sex industry in Tanzania has its roots on grinding poverty and the unemployment crisis facing youths.

Thousands of the poverty-stricken and desperate youths, unable to obtain jobs in the shrinking labour market, dodge economic hardships in the remote rural villages and flock to urban centres hoping to lead better lives.

When they reach the urban centres, the young men and women experience a seamy side of life they had not dreamt of when they were in the villages. Hence, to survive in a hostile urban environment, some of them engage in crime and prostitution hoping to make ends meet.

The uncontrollable rural-urban movement of youths is not only a headache to economic planners but also an obstacle to health-care delivery, particularly our struggle to contain the spread of HIV/AIDS infection in a country with a crippling eight-billion-US-dollar foreign debt, Ndyetabura says.

Walter Mazzuki, another UNDP programme officer, says that moral degeneration and illiteracy have also immensely contributed to the devastating effects of HIV/AIDS infection in Kigoma as girls begin practising sex at the ages of 13 or 14.

Nation-wide, he adds, the behaviour has resulted into a sharp peak of diagnosed AIDS cases in the age group of 15 for women and between 25 and 34 for men.

Sex at a tender age has contributed to increased school drops-outs among girls due to pregnancies and an increasing number of deliveries outside marriages, he explains.

Kigoma provincial medical officer, Godfrey Mbaruku, says poor co-ordination and lack of commitment on the part of policy makers and government leaders have hampered the fight to contain HIV/AIDS infection in the area.

There is weak political and government commitment to help the work of raising HIV/AIDS response from village to national level, he explains. Knowledge and understanding of HIV/AIDS is very limited among community members and the leaders at all levels.

Kigoma provincial authorities blame the influx of NGOs in the refugee camps for not helping the civilian population in the anti-AIDS campaign.

These organisations are here to make money for their people and not to save the lives of Tanzanians, Deo Mkula, a village leader in Kasulu district hosting the refugees, says.

Nationally, Tanzania, with 1.4 million AIDS cases, has done little to spearhead the campaign to halt HIV/AIDS infection. Foreign donors are irked by authorities for wasting time and more money on research for more information on the epidemic.

They say world researchers have already established a lot of information on the disease and therefore it is unwise for Tanzania to delay tackling the problem.

If there is genuine commitment from the leadership, this incurable disease will be prevented, Dr Mom Joof, UNESCO resident representative in Tanzania, says.

He adds that Tanzania's problem was not the availability of funds but priority where such funds should be put to use.

The anti-AIDS campaign in Tanzania has been a one-man show, by President Benjamin Mkapa. Other leaders, a Dar es Salaam newspaper vendor says, wait until when their own children get killed by the disease that's when they will wake up.