– At Ifo trading centre, a short distance from northeastern Kenya’s Dadaab refugee complex, Hawa*, a teenage girl, sits in a dark room on an old jerry can holding a small bunch of fresh khat, a mild stimulant, ostensibly for sale.
But Hawa is not selling khat; she is selling sex. The kiosk is a convenient way for her to meet clients.
“I don’t live here and I don’t sell miraa [a local name for khat]. This is where my friends and I meet men. We sell them sex and they give us some little money to survive,” the 17-year-old told IRIN/PlusNews.
Like most of the residents of Dadaab, Hawa is a refugee who escaped conflict in her native Somalia two years ago. Her sex work is kept very secret; only the girls she works with and a few local pimps know how she earns a living.
“If anybody knew that we were [selling sex], they would scald us with hot water. In our culture, that is punishable by death,” she said. “When a customer comes, we take him in as if he is going to choose the best miraa, then we negotiate and have sex. We charge them about 200 Kenya shillings [US$2.15].”
With close to 470,000 residents, Dadaab is bursting at the seams. The local trading centres are busy hubs for small business owners and truck drivers delivering trade goods, food and other humanitarian commodities.
“Many of our customers are people who drive these trucks that bring goods here from the other urban centres. We also get clients from the villages around here,” Hawa said. “When they arrive, our [pimps], who mostly work as loaders, ask them if they are interested in sex and they bring them here.”
Hawa says she usually leaves the decision on condom use to her clients, and has never been for an HIV test.
The HIV prevalence in Kenya’s North Eastern Province, where Dadaab is located, is about 1 percent, much lower than the national average of 7.4 percent. Nevertheless, experts say interventions to reduce the population’s vulnerability to HIV are important.
“Low risk”, not “no risk”
“Knowledge about HIV and AIDS is high here – about 90 percent – but the use of prevention methods like condoms is low and not many people turn up for tests. So we encourage them to turn up for tests and promote prevention methods like condoms to ensure they are safe,” said Mohamed Ibrahim, a peer counsellor working at a youth centre in the camp. “The fact that HIV prevalence is low doesn’t mean you say let us rest and forget about HIV.”
A 2010 HIV Behavioural Surveillance Survey conducted by the UN Refugee Agency and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development in Dadaab found that 7 percent of male respondents and 3 percent of female respondents reported symptoms of a sexually transmitted infection – which increases susceptibility to acquiring and transmitting HIV – in the past year.
The BSS found that 3 percent of sexually active respondents reported transactional sex for money, gifts or favours.
Just 12 percent of sexually active survey participants reported ever using a condom, dropping to 5 percent for the female condom, and only 22 percent of respondents had comprehensive knowledge about HIV.
If anybody knew that we were [selling sex], they would scald us with hot water. In our culture, that is punishable by death”HIV programmes should focus on increasing awareness and consistent condom use,” the authors noted. “Interventions focusing on condom negotiation skills may help individuals convince reluctant partners.”
Initiatives to help sensitize the youth on HIV exist in Dadaab; at one youth centre within the trading centre, young men and girls read materials and watch educational videos on the subject.
Liban Rashid, a young Somali man working with the NGO Film Aid International in Dadaab, has become convinced of the value of condom use in protecting sex workers and the general population from HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.
“Sex work is a business here for many young girls and women because they have to get a little money,” he said. “But they need to be put on the safe side by being given education on the need to use condoms if they can’t leave the practice.”