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TOGO: Truckers know the risks but spurn condom use

"It's a question of money," said one of the many truck drivers milling about the main border crossing between Benin and Togo. "Most of the girls are simply after money, and if I decide it'll be without a condom, then it'll be without a condom."

As soon as school ends each day, teenage girls in this Togolese border town head for the border post to sell sweets, bread and sometimes more, to the 1,000-odd truckers and travellers who pass through each day.

Local residents say some men will pay CFA francs 5,000 or even 10,000 (US $10 to $20) to have sex with the women of their choice. Others manage to persuade young girls to sleep with them for the price of a soft drink.

"Look at the girls and say you don't find them appealing ... every one of them's sexy," Allassane Washidou, an apprentice driver from Togo, whose truck was lined up at the border with scores of others waiting to go through, told PlusNews.

Sanvee Kondji is situated on the Abidjan-Lagos corridor, an 825 km transport route that runs through five countries.

This busy highway carries 14 million people between Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, Benin and Nigeria. It is viewed by health experts as the single largest transmission belt of HIV/AIDS infection in West Africa.

"We're heading to Cotonou," the capital of Benin, said Abdallah, a 19-year-old driver's mate swinging in a hammock slung beneath his truck. "We stop over in big towns to sell our goods and sometimes we stop elsewhere."

To kill time as pernickety customs officers poke about the heavily laden trucks and wade through paper-work, Abdallah likes to check out the young girls.


There are no formal brothels in Aneho, the nearest town whose urban sprawl stretches right up to the border crossing.

But many young apprentices, single mothers and hawkers of sweets and cakes earn a bit of money on the side by freelancing in the sex trade. Many of them are below the legal age of consent.

All are chasing money to help their families. And they know that ready cash is available among the police and customs officers working the borders as well as the truck drivers and travellers just passing through.

But sleeping with strangers is a high-risk strategy. This year's UNAIDS report shows that close to 60 percent of adults living with HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa are women. And the younger they are, the worse it gets. Of the people aged between 15 and 24 living with HIV in Africa, 76 percent are female.

"When I find a girl attractive I talk to her," said Abdallah, who is aware of the risk of catching the HIV virus through unprotected sex. But he admits to only using condoms sporadically. "When I can't find a condom, I just go without."

Allassane told exactly the same story. "Sometimes you get talking and then you want to make love and you just don't have time to go get a condom," he said.

Last year, UNAIDS and the World Bank launched a four-year $16 million regional project aimed at reducing the spread of HIV along the Abidjan-Lagos route. This is aimed at drivers and travellers, as well as local populations along the bustling trade route.

"Truckers have at least one woman in every town they drive through," said Marguerite Yawo Gouna, the spokesperson for a local NGO called Espoir Vie Togo. "When they go home they endanger the lives of their wife and children ... Men make women vulnerable."

Unfortunately there are no HIV/AIDS testing facilities at Sanvee Kondji. The nearest testing centre is across the border at Hillacondji, in Benin, where a US non-governmental agency, Population Services International (PSI), offers free care, tests and advice.

One nurse in the PSI health centre remarked that most of the people who visited the facility simply "come to watch television or see the AIDS prevention films. They never come back to be tested, despite their promises".

At Sanvee Kondji, Ebenezer Agodome, the local head of the World Bank-funded transport corridor project, told PlusNews that condoms were distributed regularly to improve protection against the virus.

But he said that though local youngsters claimed to be fully aware of how HIV was transmitted and of the dangers of unprotected sex, they still failed to respect even the most elementary rules of protection.


At a demonstration last Saturday of how to wear a condom, some men ripped open the packaging with their teeth or with sharp objects, tearing the delicate sheath inside, while others forgot to check the sell-by date. "There's still a lot of work to do," Agodome said.

A preliminary study carried out in 2002 before the launch of the corridor project stated that the situation at the border crossing was "explosive".

"The use of contraceptive sheaths is not generalised, there is a multitude of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and the sick prefer to look after themselves rather than seek care in health centres."

"Rapid action is required here," the report concluded.

The most recent statistics available at Aneho hospital, dating back to 1998, show a far higher rate of infection than the national average. They suggest that just over 24 percent of the adult population in the border district are infected with the HI virus, compared to a national average of six percent.

Like nearby Cote d'Ivoire, the country hardest hit by the AIDS pandemic in West Africa, Togo is increasingly feeling the impact of the arrival of migrants from poorer landlocked countries to its north, such as Burkina Faso and Niger.

Growing poverty is hurting efforts to fight the pandemic, while at the same time it forces many young women to resort to any means possible to survive.

"I spend my weekends selling bread at the border to help earn a little money for the family," said one young secondary school student. Her mother, a hawker at the border post, added sharply: "I've told my girls about the risks they run. They must lead a healthy life because they are my only source of wealth."

Theme (s): Other,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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