July 10, 2002
Deeply religious brothel workers in Nigeria believe their faith in God will protect them from contracting HIV, researchers said Tuesday at the 14th International AIDS Conference. Researchers from the Society for Family Health in Abuja, Nigeria, suggested that these religious beliefs may be contributing to rising rates of infection in the brothels. "While it is clear that many of the sex workers engaged in unprotected risky sex, they incorrectly judged their risk as low apparently because many felt their belief in God offered them protection from infection," said Zaccharus Akinyemi, a researcher with the social services agency in Africa's most populous nation.
Akinyemi said the researchers discovered that many of the women considered themselves religious and recognized that their commercial sex work was opposed by their faith. Nevertheless, he said, one of the dangerous outcomes of sex workers' reliance on God for protection is belief in a faith-based invulnerability to HIV, leading them to think they do not need to use condoms. He said statistics indicate that faith-based protection is failing. In 1991-1992 about 17 percent of sex workers in Nigeria were HIV-infected; in 1995-1996 that infection rate rose to around 35 percent. Akinyemi said he believes that the rate continues to rise among the 75,000 commercial sex workers in Nigeria.
In another discussion at the symposium on sex workers and AIDS, Kristin Dunkle, a scientist with the Medical Research Council in Pretoria, South Africa, explored why women engage in transactional sex -- trading sexual favors for either cash, products or services with casual or long-term "secret" partners in addition to their regular partners. Of the 1,395 women surveyed at a hospital and three clinics in Soweto, South Africa, about half the women between ages 16 and 44 admitted to having casual sex encounters. Of that group, 42.4 percent said they had engaged in transactional sex. Dunkle said 95 percent of the women received cash in return for their sexual favors.