Shouldering the blame
Owing to their nomadic existence, truck drivers are often blamed for spreading HIV. But are they really the biggest culprits? GG VAN ROOYEN looks at evidence that contradicts this widely held assumption.
It might come as a surprise, but truck drivers are not the biggest offenders when it comes to spreading HIV along Africa’s busiest transport corridors.
Research conducted by a United States research organisation, Constella-Futures, suggests that truck drivers are not the chief culprits responsible for spreading HIV along these routes.
Constella-Futures studied the volume and characteristics of prostitution along a section of the Northern Corridor highway between Mombasa and Kampala. The research group specifically looked at the features of typical “hot spots” – areas where prostitution was particularly prevalent – as well as the characteristics of typical sex worker clients along the highway.
And the surprising conclusion that they came to was that truck drivers constituted a fairly small percentage of these sex workers’ clients. In fact, only 28% of their clients were truckers; 72% had other occupations.
Similar research was also done along the highway between Kampala and Juba in Southern Sudan and the results were very similar. Only 30% of sex workers’ clients were truckers.
But, while this is a surprising statistic, it doesn’t quite tell the whole story. While truck drivers only represent a minority of sex workers’ clientele, they remain the primary reason for transactional sex taking place along these corridors.
The explanation for this is simple: the presence of truck drivers at highway stops along a route does not only attract sex workers; entire informal communities spring up around these truck stops because they represent an ideal place to do business. Whether you’re selling your services as a sex worker or simply selling fruit and vegetables from a stall is irrelevant, a bustling marketplace has been created where a demand for your specific product or service will exist. And, of course, the presence of this marketplace in turn attracts individuals from other occupations.
For this reason, only around 30% of sex worker clients at truck stops are actual truck drivers. The informal communities that exist around these areas are so big and diverse that truck drivers actually become a minority. Many of the individuals who make use of these sex workers are teachers, mine workers, farm workers, government employees and construction workers.
Consider the following: while conducting their research, Constella-Futures found that an average of 2 400 trucks park at highway stops between Mombasa and the Ugandan border every night. These 2 400 trucks, however, attracted a total of 5 600 commercial sex workers – a clear indication that truck drivers were not the only individuals making use of sex workers’ services.
“Truckers are usually a minority of clients of sex workers at most hot spots on the highway – programmes need to engage the wider communities at stopovers and address the local context,” stated Alan Ferguson, a researcher for Constella-Futures, while discussing the organisation’s findings at the International Aids Conference that was held in Mexico City.
But, even though truck drivers only make up 30% of sex workers’ clients, this does not mean that they aren’t particularly vulnerable to HIV infection. In fact, Constella-Futures’ research suggests that they might be vulnerable exactly because many truckers do not make use of the services of random sex workers.
The fact that truckers generally travel up and down the same route repeatedly results in many of them establishing semi-regular sexual relationships with partners. Even if a truck driver does not have a girlfriend in a specific area, he will tend to make use of the services of the same sex worker every time.
This is a problem because of the fact that people are usually more willing to forego condom use when they are having sex with a regular partner. According to Constella-Future’s findings, sex workers used a condom 77% of the time when having sex with a casual client, but only used a condom in 64% of cases when sleeping with a regular client. In cases where a truck driver is not sleeping with a sex worker – but is instead sleeping with a regular partner or girlfriend – the likelihood of condom use is even less.
So, while many truck drivers might not be as responsible for the spread of HIV as many thought, they are undoubtedly placing themselves, their sexual partners and their families at risk.
And in South Africa, the prevalence of HIV among drivers is quickly becoming one of the transport industry’s biggest concerns. For example, a 2000 Medical Research Council report found that roughly 56% of truck drivers in KwaZulu-Natal are infected with HIV.
Interestingly, the researchers hypothesised that the training and hiring of women was one unique and possibly effective way of dealing with the problem, as female drivers were far less likely to engage in casual sex or make use of the services of a male sex worker.
Earlier this year, the Health Economics and HIV/Aids Research Division (HEARD) at the University of KwaZulu-Natal conducted an exploratory study which examined the links between the skilled labour shortage of the road freight industry in South Africa and the hiring of female truck drivers. HEARD research associates, Clara Rubincam and Scott Naysmith led the research which took place from August 2008 to March 2009.
“According to the Road Freight Association, the industry loses approximately 3 000 drivers per annum while it requires 15 000 new drivers each year. Although current HIV prevalence rates across South African truck drivers has not been quantified, a human resource manager told us that it is an ongoing problem, with many companies losing more drivers than they can train,” says Rubincam.
Rubincam and Naysmith found that, in many instances, companies are attempting to deal with this shortage by training female drivers.
“The number of women truck drivers is growing as companies increasingly seek and train them as they are considered reliable and low risk – they have not been found to drink and drive or engage in commercial sex work,” says Naysmith.
While accommodating female drivers in the workplace can be challenging – many stopovers and depots do not offer facilities for women – a large number of human resource managers still agree that the benefits of employing female drivers outweigh the costs.
“We envisage that more and more female truck drivers will be on South Africa’s roads as industry and company representatives predict that the labour shortage will be a long-term problem in the country,” states Rubincam.
The nature of truck drivers’ work undoubtedly places them at risk of contracting – and spreading – HIV. While they might not make use of the services of sex workers as often as is presumed, they remain a vulnerable segment of society when it comes to HIV infection.
According to research by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), 71% of South African long-distance truck drivers spend less than 15 days at home within any six-month period.
And always being on the road makes having multiple sexual partners far more likely, which in turn increases their chances of contracting HIV. The industry has an obligation to acknowledge the challenging nature of their occupation, and should assist them in dealing with the threat of HIV in a responsible manner.