There's a heartbreaking account in this week's New York Times magazine about Swaziland's "truck-stop girls." And the sad thing is, this is one of the better stories.
M. Catherine Maternowska, who's done relief work all over the world, recounts visiting a clinic in Swaziland designed specifically to treat and prevent the rampant STDs of truck drivers and the women who service them along the route. While this may sound oddly localized, there's good reason: the country, she explains, is heavily dependent on its many truckers to receive supplies, and they're a contributing factor to the fact that it has "the highest H.I.V. rate in the world: one in three people is infected." And these clinics are set up so truckers are inclined to go: they can visit and get treatment while their paperwork is processed and their vehicles are refueled.
And, of course, the sex workers, many very young, fall victim to disease, too.
I met eyes with a 16-year-old named Mbali. She was thin, with close-cropped hair and a beautiful smile. I offered her a packet of crackers, which she ripped open with her teeth. After wolfing them down, she looked at me and said, "I hate having sex." Her parents were dead; she was unable to pay her school fees, had been abused by an overburdened aunt - and now, like many of the girls, she was a runaway. Nearly one in four Swazi girls is H.I.V. positive, and Mbali is one of them. Her treatment options are limited. "I have nowhere to sleep unless I find a man," she said. "Sometimes I don't have money and food for two days. A man without a condom will pay more, so obviously I say O.K. because I need money."
While the clinic is filled with such stories, its existence is actually encouraging, as it at least acknowledges the problem and goes some small way towards preventing further spread of the epidemic. Explains an article on AllAfrica, quoting one official,
"In Swaziland, denial about AIDS is one factor that has made it almost taboo for families to admit their loved ones passed away from an AIDS-related illness. You won't find AIDS listed as the cause of death on death certificates, and so we have no official number to work with."
And considering that as recently as May, a prominent minister suggested that AIDS and HIV victims be "branded," clearly obtaining treatment is not a simple matter.
Despite its high AIDS and HIV rates, Swaziland is not a country we hear about very much in America; but in any discussion of AIDS prevention and African's women's issues, it can't be denied, and one presumes that Hillary Clinton's stated commitment to prioritizing women's health will include a nation where one in three people has AIDS, and an ever-growing population is turning to sex work. Recently, the U.S. Africa Command held a MEDFLAG program in Swaziland, a "two-week medical exercise" designed to "improve medical disaster preparedness and humanitarian assistance management." While this seems like a drop in the bucket of the nation's problems - and unlikely to address the more immediate "medical disasters" ravaging Swaziland - it's something. Private organziations like those Maternowska refers to are doing important work - but need larger support. And increasing awareness is crucial.
Truck-Stop Girls [NY Times]
Related: Swaziland: HIV/Aids Blamed For 25 Percent Job Absenteeism [AllAfrica]
Timothy Myeni apologises…Again [Swazi Observer]
U.S. Africa Command Opens MEDFLAG 09 In Swaziland [Africom]