Sex workers and loggers in Guyana challenge HIV together
18 January 2011
Kay Forde has been a sex worker in Guyana for more than 20 years. She is an AIDS activist too. As secretary of the One Love Organization, a non-governmental organization addressing the HIV needs of sex workers, Ms Forde is committed to making a difference in the Kwakwani region, Guyana.
This commitment involves not only advocating for the rights of sex workers to live free of stigma and discrimination, with access to good information about HIV, it also extends to working with their clients. Many of the clients earn their living in the wood logging industry.
There are some 13,000 loggers in Guyana and they are a significant segment of the migrant worker population. With forests generally found in isolated areas, there can be a lack of regular access to both condoms and correct knowledge of how HIV is transmitted, which increases vulnerability to infection. Sex workers themselves are disproportionally affected by the virus with an HIV prevalence of around 16%, compared to an adult HIV prevalence in Guyana of 1.2%.
With this in mind, in 2009 One Love joined forces with the International Labour Organization (ILO), the Government of Guyana, the US Department of Labour and the PEPFAR HIV/AIDS Workplace Education Programme. One of the principle aims is to encourage HIV prevention among loggers with a core package of services. This includes condom promotion, voluntary HIV counselling and testing, and referrals for sexually transmitted infections, which together aim to increase risk recognition and promote safer sex.
The strategy to use the One Love Organization is working well, since awareness is now being created among both the organization’s members and the loggers on the importance of adopting safer sexual practices.
Sean Wilson, ILO National Project Coordinator
The work with loggers intensified in April 2010 when the ILO entered into a partnership with the Upper Berbice Forest and Agriculture Producers Association (UBFAPA) to educate its members. Fifteen of the One Love team and affiliate trainers travelled from camp to camp conducting interactive group discussions.
Ms Forde believes that the loggers of Kwakwani have become more aware of HIV and are more willing to discuss intimate sexual issues. “They come and ask questions. They’re attentive and interactive and it’s very fulfilling to have them listen and get full explanations on health and sexual matters,” she said.
Charles Swaving, a logging camp supervisor working near Kwakwani, who attended a One Love discussion in July last year, agrees. He says he was grateful for the opportunity to find out correct information about HIV as well as the need to treat those living with the virus with dignity and respect. He vows to remain HIV-free.
According to Sean Wilson, ILO National Project Coordinator, this successful partnership demonstrates that sex workers can be powerful advocates for HIV prevention. “The strategy to use the One Love Organization is working well, since awareness is now being created among both the organization’s members and the loggers on the importance of adopting safer sexual practices.”
The project is ongoing and there are plans to re-engage loggers already reached and examine the impact of substance use on HIV transmission as well as how transmission risks can be reduced overall. There will also be greater efforts made to ensure a regular and reliable supply of condoms to loggers. There is also an issue of how loggers can access condoms in remote locations where transportation costs are high.
During the coming years, the project will continue working with the UBFAPA to engage more of its membership in what is seen as a vital education process. The ILO also intends to replicate this partnership with other sex workers’ organizations to reach different groups of workers across the country.