SOUTHERN AFRICA: Farmworkers slowly waking up to HIV/AIDS
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
HOEDSPRUIT, 19 July (PLUSNEWS) - "Farm workers should take care of each other – always use a condom", reads a poster at a bus terminal in the small town of Hoedspruit, in South Africa's Limpopo province, where hundreds of farm labourers arrive daily searching for work.
Migrant farmworkers in Southern Africa are often a forgotten population, with little HIV/AIDS support provided despite being a high-risk group. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) is trying to address that lapse with 'Project Hlokomela', an initiative offering prevention and care in Hoedspruit.
In the northern province of Limpopo, situated along the Mozambican border, many of the farm workers are male labourers from Mozambique who stay on farms for short periods and have a high level of mobility.
When the project was launched in 2005, Armindo Sitoi was one of the first people to be tested - and found out he was HIV negative.
Born in southern Mozambique, Sitoi fled from the civil war in the 1980s and has been working in South Africa ever since. "My parents died during the war and my brothers are all missing ... perhaps they're living here in South Africa," he told PlusNews while loading oranges into the back of a trailer.
Fellow Mozambican Alice Sambane has been living in Hoedspruit since 1988, and welcomed the move to introduce HIV/AIDS awareness among farm workers. "There was little information about AIDS here. I think they should do the same everywhere else."
The new project reaches more than 3,000 workers in 18 of the 300 farms in Hoedspruit. In each farm, a farmworker known as the Nompilo ("Mother of Life" in Zulu) is selected to create awareness among the workers on issues such as prevention, nutrition, stigma and discrimination.
Hlokomela is also hoping to soon provide free antiretroviral (ARV) treatment, as public health facilities offering the life-prolonging drugs are up to 75kms from the farms, said the project's coordinator, Christine Du Preez.
Travelling to the local ARV site can cost up to R90 (US$12), out of reach for the majority of farmworkers who earn about R800 (US$111) a month. In addition, fear of deportation has meant that hardly any Mozambican immigrants made use of government counselling and testing facilities.
The IOM estimates that between 10,000 to 80,000 Mozambicans live in Limpopo, one of the country's richest agricultural areas. According to a survey conducted by the agency in 2003, despite high levels of HIV prevalence, farmworkers still did not know enough about the virus.
Researchers noted that high-risk sexual behaviour between men and women working on farms was common, and the "incidence of concurrent sexual relationships was unexpectedly high".
With a "striking lack of ... HIV/AIDS interventions directed specifically at farmworkers and migrants", there was poor knowledge of HIV/AIDS, allowing many myths about the disease to go unchallenged, the report found. It noted the belief that AIDS could be cured, was widespread.
"When one's daily life is a struggle in so many respects, HIV/AIDS appears as a distant threat - only one of many faced daily by workers," the researchers remarked.