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Sudan: Roads help the movement of trade goods – and of HIV/AIDS

© UNICEF Sudan/2005/Ashton
Truck drivers in Al Fasher, Sudan.

By Lucy Ashton

AL FASHER, Sudan, 8 November 2005 – In Africa it is often necessary for workers to travel from place to place, whether inside their home country or across its borders. The mobility of large groups of people unfortunately contributes to the spread of the AIDS virus, and Sudan is no exception.

Doctors in Al Fasher say the first AIDS cases here were mostly among truckers who had contracted the virus abroad. They hauled goods to Chad and the Central African Republic, and when they came back some returned with HIV. These days Sudanese who have never crossed the borders are also contracting the virus. HIV has become a generalized epidemic with a prevalence of 2.3 per cent among people ages 15-49 (source: SOWC).

As a result of the ongoing conflict in Darfur, cross-border trade has slowed. But the main road from the capital, Khartoum, still passes through this region, and is used by truck convoys bound for the towns of Al Geneina and Nyala.

© UNICEF Sudan/2005/Ashton
Asa makes enough money from cooking to prevent herself from having to turn to prostitution, but says she is nonetheless often harassed by soldiers.

Truck drivers

In a barren area by Al Fasher airport, Ashraf is snoozing in the shade of his oil truck. It is 10 days since he left his wife and children in Khartoum. He is out here in the dust waiting for the rest of the convoy to arrive. Ashraf will not talk about his own behaviour directly – extramarital sex is illegal in the Islamic Republic of Sudan – but says, “Most men on the road sleep with women in the villages where they stop each night.”

And few if any who engage in sex protect themselves against HIV or any other sexually transmitted disease. According to a 2004 government survey, only half of truck drivers had seen or heard of a condom and only 2.4 per cent had ever used one. Ashraf says his colleagues hear about AIDS on the radio as they drive, but few recall having met someone with the disease.

He nods his head towards the grass shacks on the other side of the road, and identifies them as the kind of place where one can pick up a woman. “Henna tattoos are what mark the sexually available women from those who are not,” he says. The brown dye that curls in delicate loops over the soles of the feet indicates a women is married and therefore should not be asked for sex.

Escaping the ‘shack by the road’

Later in the day as dusk falls over the road, men are sitting lethargically waiting for ‘iftar’ – their evening breakfast and first meal of the day. Asa is pummelling beans in a pot over the fire. Her feet are not tattooed but she was married at one time. Her husband was shot 9 years ago in the civil war.

The 21 years of war in Sudan have left many women widowed with children and little income. For some of these women, selling their bodies is a necessity if they hope to survive and provide for their children. Thankfully, Asa does not have to sleep with men for money since she makes enough from her cooking. But she is often harassed.

“Drivers come and they have lots of money, they get drunk and then… and soldiers in particular come late at night,” she says. “Sometimes the soldiers come, eat and refuse to pay, then they start touching you and saying ‘I need you.’”

Asa says she is usually rescued by better intentioned men, but the soldiers are often aggressive, and fights can break out. 

She has four daughters, who work here with her. Asa worries that they will get caught up in the violence. But she is proud to say that all her daughters go to school, and hopes that this will save them. She feels school is their best chance to escape the shack by the road, “Because if you have an education you can earn a good life.”



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