By Gatonye Gathura
Highly mobile women traders have been identified as the new source of HIV infections in Kenya and the East African region.
These migrating traders, a new study shows live a risky lifestyle including long period from home, are likely to have multiple partners and with high rates of HIV infections.
Mainly involved in second-had clothes the traders have established complex networks spanning from the source at the port of Mombasa to Nairobi, all major towns in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and the rest of the region.
A study by the Kenya Medical Research Institute and the University of California, US, published on January 11, 2018 says these networks are now a major factor in the spread of HIV.
To understand how the networks operate, the researchers using Global Positioning System (GPS) had used Kibuye Market in Kisumu as a take-off point.
Kibuye Market is one of the largest outdoor markets in Eastern Africa, attracting predominantly female vendors from across Uganda, Tanzania, and from the larger western Kenya.
“This market provides a temporary space to sample migrant women at high risk of HIV transmission who would otherwise be difficult to reach,” says the study in the journal Plos One.
The researchers mapped 6,390 vendor stalls at the market of which 4,064 or about 64 per cent were occupied by women mainly selling second-hand clothes.
The researchers report higher than average HIV prevalence in this group as well as riskier sex behavior compared to other female population of the same age.
HIV prevalence among the female market traders, the study say was 25.6 per cent, compared to 15.1 per cent for Kisumu town and 6.9 per cent nationally among women of reproductive age.
Further the research says over a third of the market female traders or 38.3 per cent had spent nights away from their main residence in the month leading to the study.
More than 11 per cent of this group had spent up to more than a week away from their main residence.
“More than 13 per cent of the women reported multiple partners in the last year with 16 per cent of married women reporting concurrent partnerships,” says the study.
Almost 40 per cent of the women had migrated in the past five years either changing residence within Kenya or crossing a national boundary.
The current study, the authors explain is part of a wider project to understand how the increasing number of women in informal trade is impacting on HIV.
Justifying why women, the researchers say data shows higher internal migration of women than men in recent decades. Similar studies and intervention have been carried among long distance truck drivers almost all who are men.
Due to changing gender power balance in favour of women, the authors in an earlier but related study say more women in Kenya are moving around today in search of financial opportunities than ever before.
Most of these women, the study says get into highly mobile informal trade with most supplementing their earnings from sex work.
“Some women maintained their identity as traders while concealing their regular sex work on the street, in bars, or in lodgings and hotels, which provided the bulk of their income,” say the earlier study appearing in the journal Social Science & Medicine.
The experts now want HIV prevention and treatment interventions targeting these highly mobile women traders be put in place urgently.