The eerie silence, solitude and darkness of graveyards make them a virtual no-go area for most people, but they're the perfect venue for sex workers in Tanzania's commercial capital, Dar es Salaam.
"Every evening after sunset cemeteries teem with hordes of couples jostling for space between graves to make love," said Rashid Chilumba, an AIDS activist.
Burial grounds not only allow privacy but also save on room rent, making commercial sex common in the more than 30 cemeteries that dot the city of about four million. But the graveyards are far from shops where condoms are sold and there is concern among activists that cemetery sex is stoking the spread of HIV/AIDS, which affects nearly seven percent of the country's population.
"Soaring unemployment is pushing young and sexually active members of society to the edge of survival," Chilumba said. "Young women sex workers resort to cemetery trysts because their clients are the sort that do not have the money to pay for lodgings, so the clients do not have to worry about incurring the additional cost of having to pay for a room in a guest house."
Poverty and the inferior position of women in society meant that sex workers had little power to negotiate the use of condoms. "Our women are cultured to depend on men for everything. Because of this, they cannot turn down partners who insist on unprotected sex lest they lose income," he explained.
The traditional fear that cemeteries are the haunts of evil spirits and the souls of the dead also serves to make them more secure and free of voyeurism, hence the risk of being caught is minimal.
Chilumba and his anti-AIDS lobby, Afroboys, have taken up the fight against cemetery sex. The group of 30 carpenters and artists posts notices in the city, and has gained a reputation for powerful anti-HIV/AIDS messages, some of which are displayed on a prominent chalk board outside their furniture workshop on Dar es Salaam's Bagamoyo Road, notorious for its traffic snarl-ups during peak hours.
"The cemetery invites you to acquire the virus, and then invites you again to your final resting place when you die," warns one.
Tanzanians have relatively poor HIV/AIDS awareness and condom use among the youth is limited, so the Afroboys are meeting a need in the fight against the pandemic.
"About two-thirds, or 68 percent of young men and 65 percent of young women, knew that a healthy looking person could be infected with HIV," a Ministry of Health report noted in 2005. "These levels of awareness are not as high as those in many other African countries, and significant stigma and misconceptions about HIV/AIDS remain."
Prof Fred Mhalu, a Tanzanian HIV/AIDS researcher, attributes the continued risky behaviour of Dar es Salaam's commercial sex workers to poverty and ignorance.
If Tanzania is to lower its HIV infections, he said, the government will have to expand employment opportunities. An estimated 500,000 Tanzanians join the labour market every year, most of whom cannot find work.
"Over and above education, people must have an income," Mhalu said. "They will risk their lives to earn a living if the society cannot accommodate them by giving them jobs."
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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