Peer education for Kinshasa's sex workers

Giselle, Kinshasa sex workerGiselle lives in a sprawling shanty town by the river in the Congolese capital, Kinshasa. The poverty here is extreme. Piles of abandoned rubbish adorn the patches of dirt where children play and chickens peck for morsels of food. Sewage runs in rivulets between the rows of huts, and when it rains, the ground turns to a sticky sea of mud.

It is here at this river bank that merchants arrive in dug-out canoes bringing sand to sell in the capital. They moor up for several weeks to sell their sand and purchase other goods to take back upstream.

Serving this itinerant community, the sex trade flourishes. With little other hope for survival, Giselle has turned to prostitution to make ends meet. To cover just the costs of food and her bed in a slum shack, she must see at least 6 clients a day. Not surprisingly, the chances of contracting HIV are extremely high.

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Educating sex workers

In a country so devastated by war and misrule, where many young people have no hope of employment and resort to desperate solutions to their problems, an AIDS epidemic here is a serious risk.

This is why DFID is funding the country’s largest programme of HIV awareness, educating high-risk groups such as sex workers about the risks of unprotected sex and the importance of always using a condom.

Sophie is a ‘peer educator’ who gives her time voluntarily to teach groups of sex workers about HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. Giselle and her friends are taking a week-long course to learn how to use condoms, how to get tested to find out their HIV status, and how to manage men’s resistance to wearing protection. Sophie shows them photos of how HIV can and can’t be transmitted, and performs role plays with the women.

Women trained as peer educators teach a different group of sex workers each week. Since the project (run by External link, opens in same windowPopulation Services International – PSI) began in 2000, over 11,000 women have received HIV awareness training.

Part of the course shows girls going to the local health centre to be tested and treated for STDs. But when asked where the local health centre was, Giselle explains that there isn’t one in the area. Occasionally a mobile clinic visits the district, but infrequently.

While this project will have improved Giselle’s quality of life if it prevents her from contracting HIV, a much more radical change is needed in the country to provide a decent level of basic health service.

It is for this reason that DFID has supported DRC’s first democratic elections since 1960 this year. A change in the political management of the country may at last bring some realistic hope of a brighter future.

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Key facts

  • The reconstruction needs of the DRC are huge. DFID has begun work with the Transitional Government on longer term plans to rebuild DRC’s public services and infrastructure. DFID is also working with other partners to fund construction, health and education projects that will bring more immediate benefits to communities in the DRC. DFID is helping the Government, the UN and NGOs to tackle HIV/AIDS. Total available funding for DRC in 2006/7 is 62 million
  • The total HIV/AIDS awareness programme reached 540,000 people in 2005. In 2005 it is estimated that 13,000 cases of HIV were prevented because of this programme
  • DFID gave 700,000 to support PSI’s HIV/AIDS awareness programme in 2006
  • The funding is used in three ways: direct training of high risk groups such as sex workers, mass media campaigns such as billboard and TV advertising and a mobile video unit, and national co-ordination of the awareness-raising effort
  • 25 million Prudence condoms were sold or distributed across the country in 2005. Prudence is the brand established by PSI, but it is now the generic name for condoms in DRC.

23 February, 2007