Over half Zimbabwe's soldiers HIV positive
Health workers this week called for increased efforts to stem the high number of AIDS-related deaths in the armed forces.
The recently released 2003 Zimbabwe Human Development Report claimed that HIV prevalence in the armed forces far exceeded the general population infection rate of 24.6 percent in the general population, and three-quarters of soldiers died of AIDS within a year of leaving the army.
A UNAIDS survey undertaken in 1999 showed that 55 percent of the then 36,000-strong army were HIV-positive.
"In the military, young and socially inexperienced people are recruited and trained to be fearless and aggressive. While this is good for war situations, research shows that the youthful soldiers carry this approach into civilian life and into their private sexual interactions," the report noted.
The study was compiled by the Poverty Reduction Forum and the Institute of Development Studies, with support from the UN Development Programme.
Sostain Moyo, director of the Pan-African Treatment Access Movement (PATAM), told IRIN the high incidence of HIV/AIDS in the army could be attributed to how the military functioned.
"Even though there is no concrete research done to prove it, the military would tend to be [more] vulnerable [to HIV infection] because of the manner in which soldiers operate," said Moyo. "They are highly mobile, and this exposes them a lot [to possible infection]."
The situation was compounded by a lack of HIV/AIDS intervention programmes in the army structure. "The army needs voluntary counselling and testing centres. [Soldiers] would be counselled on how to live positively and what they can do to avoid passing the virus on to other people," Moyo suggested.
"Recruits can be screened if the practice is guided by the goal to fight HIV/AIDS in the army. It [testing] should be regular [and] extended even to those who have served for some time. Screening, however, becomes meaningless if it is meant to stop some people from joining in the military, since this promotes discrimination and stigmatisation," he said.
Civil rights groups have opposed compulsory testing, citing the infringement of privacy.
The health ministry has pointed out that soldiers were put at greater risk of contracting the virus by the very nature of military operations: military camps, where soldiers are posted on missions or for training, are often situated in remote and poor areas; and the camps are seen as high-income areas by the local communities, particularly female sex workers.
A military base can have as many as 1,000 soldiers, of which most reside in single quarters or are placed with civilian families in neighbouring villages.
"Research suggests that members of the military [guarding borders] are offered sex in return for allowing vendors and other traders to pass through [customs] without paying duty," the report added.
Twenty-three year old James Guyo (not his real name), a Lance Corporal with the Zimbabwe National Army, told IRIN that frequent posting away from the base was one of the major factors contributing to the high HIV infection rate among soldiers.
Soon after graduating four years ago, Guyo was posted to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), when Zimbabwe was part of a Southern Africa Development Community effort helping the besieged DRC government repel a rebel takeover.
"As you can imagine, like hundreds of my colleagues, I was excited to be in the bush for the first time - more so because I had never ventured outside our borders," he said.
"The war experience was horrible, but we found our solace in the brothels of Kinshasa [DRC's capital]. Also, it was my first time employed, [and] I found it gratifying to spend my money on women of the DRC, maybe also as a way of beating homesickness," Guyo told IRIN.
He admitted that he had unprotected sex and contracted a sexually transmitted disease while in the DRC, but thought it unlikely that he had contracted HIV, as he had not experienced any symptoms of infection since returning home.
Although more than 10 of his friends have died of AIDS-related illnesses over past two years, Guyo was reluctant to undergo an HIV test.
"Even if the
army would set up its own testing centres, I do not see myself going
there. Being tested or not, what difference does it make when you are
going to die? After all, as a soldier, I was taught not to fear death,"
he told IRIN.
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