According to an article in Voice of America “Women and girls as young as 12 from Kenya’s countryside are being forced into sex work to support families affected by prolonged drought.” The title of the article calls this ‘survival sex’, a popular media trope. The article goes on to claim that the area in question here, Turkana, “suffers from Kenya’s second-highest HIV infection rate”, and attributes this to the IRC (International Rescue Committee).
This popular coupling of sex and HIV, spiced up with mentions of sex tourism, underage girls and the ‘survival’ element, is ubiquitous in the media. Even specialist publications about HIV seem obsessed with sexually transmitted HIV, to the exclusion of infections through unsafe healthcare, cosmetic care and traditional practices, which can all run the risk of coming into contact with blood. This can result in transmission of viruses such as HIV, hepatitis C and various others.
Two questions arise from this VOA article alone: first, what proportion of HIV is transmitted through sex, and what proportion is transmitted through other, non-sexual routes? And second, what is the relationship between food shortages and poverty in general on the one hand, and risky sexual behavior on the other?
In answer to the first question, VOA or the IRC, whoever came up with the figure, is wrong about Turkana having the second highest HIV prevalence in Kenya. The highest prevalence figures can be found around Lake Victoria, with Homa Bay having the highest, at 26%. National prevalence is said to be 5.9%. In comparison, prevalence in Turkana is 4%, and is claimed to have halved in the past few years.
Which leads to the answer to the second question: if poverty and food shortages have been increasing in Turkana for the last few years and HIV prevalence has been dropping, that may suggest that the correlation between the two is negative. Of course, what we really need to know is whether incidence, the percentage of new infections, is increasing or decreasing (along with an indication of how all these people are being infected, of course).
The VOA article goes on to mention sex tourism, ‘survival sex’, child sex, how little money those involved make, how they are exploited and often make no money at all. It’s extraordinary how data collectors can know so much, apparently, and yet still know next to nothing about how people are being infected. Immense amounts of data are regularly collected about sexual behavior in high HIV prevalence countries, always showing that the majority of people have sex, but also showing that only a minority have a lot of sex, a lot of partners, engage in practices considered risky, etc (you’ll find hundreds of reports on the DHS website).
The article mentions another dubious figure, this time from UNICEF: “In 2008, the United Nations Children’s Fund estimated that 30 percent of girls in coastal Kenya were forced into prostitution.” This makes it sound like 30% of all girls in coastal areas are forced into prostitution; the claim is probably that 30% of people working in prostitution were forced. The second version is still highly questionable, though typical of UN offices, but the first version is simply not credible.
There is no intention to dispute claims that there are food shortages, poverty, prostitution, HIV and many other severe problems in Kenya and elsewhere. But the desperate attempt to connect HIV with sex, and adding in as many shocking practices as possible to help readers swallow the claim, distracts attention from how people are being infected; it distracts attention from unsafe and insanitary conditions in healthcare facilities (and, probably to a lesser extent, from dangerous cosmetic and traditional practices).
This VOA article is disingenuous in not checking its claims against readily available data. The IRC, like all international NGOs, is anxious to increase funding, and reducing HIV transmission, poverty and food insecurity are all laudable aims. But the sloppy sensationalism in the article also leaves the impression that the claimed concerns about the dangers of ‘survival sex’, child sex tourism and child prostitution are being inflated for fundraising purposes. It also raises important doubts about what proportion of HIV is sexually transmitted.