Sex, food, and desperation

A new article from BBC News highlights one of the many heartbreaking aspects of reality in the beleaguered country of Zimbabwe:

Growing numbers of children in Zimbabwe are turning to prostitution to survive, the charity Save the Children says.

The aid agency says increasing poverty is leading girls as young as 12 to sell their bodies for as little as a packet of biscuits.

It also claims that the coming football World Cup in neighbouring South Africa could soon make things worse.

Unemployment in Zimbabwe is thought to top 90% and many cannot afford to pay for food, medical care or school fees.

Read the full article: BBC NEWS | Africa | Zimbabwe girls trade sex for food

Where to begin?  The tragedy of the story itself is obvious.  Even sadder — if possible — is the fact that this isn’t such an extraordinary situation.  “Survival sex” (transactional sex undertaken out of desperation and necessity, ie. for food, resources to care for children, etc.) is a terrible reality for many, many women and girls around the world.  And, as if the circumstance wasn’t bad enough in itself, this type of interaction often plays a major role in the transmission of HIV/AIDS.

Transactional sex of any kind poses serious problems for HIV prevention.  When one of the participants is desperate and fighting for life — in other words, in no real position to enforce conditions such as condom use — the problem is greatly amplified. 

I once read a sobering observation that has really stuck with me.  Women who engage in survival sex are forced to sacrifice their long-term safety for the sake of their short-term safety.  It’s like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: the most immediate needs win out.  A woman might know full well that an unprotected sexual encounter puts her at risk for contracting HIV … but that risk pales if the alternative is impending starvation.  (A similarly tragic “triage” is often forced on people whose lives are interrupted by violence, natural disaster, or displacement.  Many refugees, for example, lose access to life-saving medical treatment —  such as ARV therapy — when they are forced from their homes.  Lack of treatment access can have dramatic, life-or-death consequences … but in the face of immmediate danger, what choice is there?)

The realities of transactional and survival sex highlight some of the mind-boggling complexities involved in HIV prevention and harm-reduction.  Simple solutions just don’t touch the full scope of the problem.  To take just one example, certain segments of the AIDS advocacy community tend to devolve into abstinence-versus-condoms factions.  Situations like the one in Zimbabwe confound both approaches.  Where does abstinence education get you when sex, however unwanted, seems like the only way to survive or ensure the survival of dependents?   (This dilemma is an old one: Dostoevsky captured it hauntingly in Crime and Punishment.)  And how will access to condoms help someone whose sexual partner holds all the power, and won’t use one? 

HIV/AIDS is too entangled with the fabric of society to be defeated by any single approach, no matter how well that tactic may work as one component of a larger whole.

Read the full article: BBC NEWS | Africa | Zimbabwe girls trade sex for food


~ by h.e.g. on June 14, 2009.

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