DURBAN, SOUTH AFRICA — What do sex workers, traditional healers, and gay rights advocates have in common? In a place frequently referred to as “the epicenter of the epicenter” of the global AIDS epidemic, they share concerns, with the general population that they are part of, that gaps in access to health care, and HIV prevention and treatment services will slow progress toward controlling an epidemic that has flourished in the face of neglect before.
The representatives who met with us last week described efforts to close the gaps: with legal advocacy, counseling, support, care, and culturally relevant information, and the work yet to be done.
As in other countries, here sex workers can face arrest for carrying condoms in their handbags, gay and transgender people face harassment, violence and neglect, and a majority of people will turn to a traditional healer before seeking care from a medical facility.
With funding from the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief, 1,500 traditional health practitioners have received training on HIV and AIDS to ensure they give appropriate information and referrals to clinics. But, Bongani Ntshangase of the Traditional Health Practitioners in the Provincial Council on AIDS said, about 25,000 traditional healers practice in KwaZulu-Natal alone, and are the first recourse for 80 percent of the province’s population.
And while the Mosaic clinic provides a place for gay men and women to receive information and services, Nonhlanhla Mkhize, Director/Human Rights Education and Advocacy Officer, Durban Lesbian and Gay Community and Health Centre and Mosaic Clinic said, ensuring “safe spaces” beyond the clinic walls, through education, advocacy and training remains a work in progress.
The same is the case for efforts to decriminalize sex work, ensure services are available to an often mobile population, and tap into the potential for sex workers to bring information and support to each other, Thulisile Portia Khoza Provincial Coordinator of the regional Sisonke Sex Worker Movement said. She said the United States Supreme Court’s recent decision to overturn the anti-prostitution pledge requirement for United States nongovernment organizations receiving PEPFAR funding appeared to be good news, but wondered if it would allow funding to support the work of local organizations, like Sisonke as well.