Farmworkers' risky behaviour creates HIV hotbed

January is mango season in Hoedspruit, in the Limpopo province, and casual fruit pickers, mostly women, flood the area’s farms in search of work.

Conditions on the farms already make them a potential breeding ground for HIV infection. Workers usually live in overcrowded compounds away from their families and isolated from HIV and Aids interventions.
Myths about HIV abound, condom use is low and risky sexual behaviour is high, according to a 2004 survey by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

With the arrival of the seasonal workers, the possibility of HIV transmission increases. Desperate to secure employment for the duration of the harvest, it is not uncommon for young women to have sex with male supervisors, known as indunas, in exchange for a job; becoming the “girlfriend” of a supervisor for the season can guarantee accommodation on the farm and better working conditions.

“I can promise a job to a woman in exchange for sleeping with her,” one male supervisor says. “A lot of supervisors have maybe 10 girlfriends through the season.”

The IOM survey found that 52% of female workers interviewed on farms in Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces had exchanged sex for food, clothing, gifts or money. Compared with their male counterparts, female workers had lower levels of knowledge about HIV and Aids, and were about half as likely to use condoms in casual sexual relationships.

One of the main reasons they gave for not using condoms was that their husbands or boyfriends did not like them.

Intervention

Following the survey findings, the IOM began partnering with Hlokomela, a programme established by local farm owners to provide their workers with HIV/Aids prevention and care. But such interventions did not go far enough in addressing the unequal relations between male and female farmworkers that were fuelling the incidence of gender-based violence and HIV infection on the farms.

“There was a sense that there needed to be an intervention that would speak to men and bring them on board,” says Bafana Khumalo, co-director of Sonke Gender Justice, a Cape Town-based NGO that works to reduce the spread and impact of HIV and Aids by focusing primarily on gender issues.

In August 2006, staff from Sonke Gender Justice facilitated week-long workshops that drew participants from 28 local farms and three distinct groups: male supervisors, young male and female workers, and Hlokomela’s caregivers. The workshops used activities aimed at challenging traditional attitudes about the roles of men and women, and educating participants about how those attitudes put them at risk of HIV infection.

“That workshop changed everything for me,” says Sam Baloyi, a supervisor on Richmond Farm outside Hoedspruit. “Before, when I beat my wife I was very angry, but after five minutes I felt so ashamed, so I wanted to change.”

Since attending the workshop, Baloyi said he now helps his wife with household chores and no longer drinks or has girlfriends. He is still working up the courage to take an HIV test.

Prevalence

HIV prevalence among farmworkers in the Hoedspruit area is not known, but the National African Farmers’ Union has estimated that an alarming 30% to 45% of farmworkers are living with HIV nationally.

“We treat a lot of STIs [sexually transmitted infections], but there’s still a big reluctance to test [for HIV],” says Christine du Preez, Hlokomela’s programme manager and a professional nurse who divides her time between clinics on several farms in the area. “The other day we had a big HIV-awareness event, but out of the 170 or so people who came, only five tested.”

Baloyi now belongs to a farm committee called a “lifestyle action team”, set up on each of the farms that drew workshop participants with the aim of disseminating some of the workshop’s messages, distributing male and female condoms, and coming up with tailored interventions.

“We’re trying to engage people with sports and recreation so they drink less,” says Baloyi. “And there’s no shebeen [informal drinking establishment] here any more—we’ve closed it.”

Behaviour change has been more incremental for some workshop participants. Supervisor Victor Madike (41) used to think nothing of groping his female workers’ breasts and buttocks. He had numerous girlfriends with whom he never used condoms, and his response to his wife’s suspicions about them was to beat her.

Madike still prefers his wife and six children to stay in their village, but he has reduced his extramarital affairs to one girlfriend who stays with him on the farm, and he now uses condoms. “I don’t enjoy like before, but I comply,” he says grimly.

As a member of his farm’s action team, Madike says he is trying to spread the message to other supervisors not to use their position of authority to harass sexually or exploit female workers.

First step

The manager of Bavaria Farm, Johann du Preez, is careful to describe the workshops as just the first step in bringing greater openness about sexual abuse and HIV to the farms.

“I think it has made a difference, even if it’s only on an awareness level,” he says. “It’s getting people talking out there in the orchards, and it’s creating a bit of peer-group pressure, whereas before it wasn’t even talked about.”

Du Preez has noted a dramatic rise in the number of deaths among his employees in recent years, particularly the more senior workers who can afford to offer something in return for sex. Such workers are difficult to replace and, according to Du Preez, most farmers would rather invest in prevention and treatment than in recruiting and training replacements.

A local farmers’ forum is discussing the possibility of funding a clinic to provide antiretroviral (ARV) treatment to farmworkers. The nearest government ARV site is Tintswalo Hospital in Acornhoek, about 50km away, where there is a three-month waiting period for treatment, according to Du Preez.

With continued funding from IOM, the European Union and the Department of Health, another set of workshops is planned in the coming months. The eventual goal, says Khumalo, is to train Hlokomela’s staff to take over the entire initiative.—Irin

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