Selling tomatoes, onions, cabbages, peppers and other fresh foods might not be a big deal like cross-border businesses, but it also compels traders to cross boundaries of safe living in times of HIV and Aids.
For Digress Mphande, 44, the country is fighting a losing battle against the ever-changing trends of the pandemic by sticking to strategies that tend to sideline a vital at-risk population—the informal sector.
From the intricacies of her vegetable business at Vigwawa Market in Mzuzu, Digress Mphande, 44, gives a glimpse of this risky path in a flash: traders surrendering themselves into unprotected sex with partners whose names and HIV status they may never know as they do business away from home; some, especially women, venturing into transactional sex to increase their capital; others offering their bodies in exchange for cheaper goods; yet others, including long-distance drivers, feigning breakdowns and delaying tactics just to trap businesswomen into sex.
“Small-scale businesses are somehow a highway to HIV infections,” says the mother of six who leaves in Masasa Township, explaining: “When we go to order vegetables at Jenda and other areas, we meet growers who promise us fair prices in exchange for sex. To sell the basketfuls around the city, we stumble into customers willing to buy and offer more than our capital if we sleep with them.”
With about 70 percent of Malawians grappling with poverty, Mphande seem to know that the temptation can be overpowering not just because small and medium enterprises entail travelling long distances from home. The lowincome traders by nature seek to broaden their profits.
She warns: “You may be tempted or coerced to make quick money behind your partner’s back, but the real tragedy comes when you get the virus. The business falls sick and dies with you, leaving your family struggling with worsening income and living conditions.”
Oftentimes, she adds, marketplaces are probably the unkind settings for people living with the virus. Even those perceived to have tested positive are subjected to untold stigma ranging from insults and gossip with subtle innuendos to blatant discrimination and being left for dead.
In a country where about 10 in 100 people are living with the virus, crossborder trader Scrivener Dzonzi recounted a tale of deceased trader which mirrors the world Mphande and other mobile traders envisage—a world where the informal sector is recognised as a workplace with policies guaranteeing awareness campaigns as well as safeguard lives and businesses from the impact of HIV and AIDS.
In his story, traders at Freedom Square, famed as Taifa Market, were not surprised when the cross-border trader (name withheld) was diagnosed with the virus. They thought he was paying for his sins.
As his business crumbled due to his ailing health, they taunted him and saw him die. When he breathed his last, they saw his funeral degenerate into a wrestling for property as women arrived from Tanzania, Lilongwe, Blantyre and everywhere he had been on business errands, claiming to be his wives. His widow and family were only left with a house in which they were living.
“The mobile nature of our trade puts us at high risk, but the man and his business couldn’t have suffered a shocking death if we had a policy guiding how to handle HIV and Aids issues in our working environment,” said Dzonzi, the chairperson of the Association of Crossborder Businesses in the North.
Enacted in 1998, the National HIV Policy calls cited the informal sector— especially mobile vendors, cross-border traders, sex workers, pub personnel and long-distance drivers— among at-risk populations, calling for renewed action to reduce infections, stigma and deaths.
Likewise, Malawi is a signatory of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Recommendation 200 which recognises the mobile traders and the sex workers they often encounter in their line of duty—as a workplace deserving policies which promote HIV awareness and prevention measures and stigma.
Surprisingly, the country’s HIV strategies sidelines the sector which employs about 80 percent of adult Malawians in preference for the formal sector, where Malawi Business Coalition Against Aids (MBCA) is helping more and more companies and organisations adopt HIV at Workplace Policies.
Speaking when Nkhoma Mission Hospital launched its own on January 19, National Aids Commission (NAC) board chairperson, Senior Chief Makwangwala, acknowledged that HIV is affecting the country’s development from personal to national level and no sector is spared.
He reasoned: “Apart from ensuring that people know that everybody is affected by HIV and Aids, having the workplace policy can help lessen the spread and impact of the virus. With the country vying for three zeroes—ending new infections, stigma and deaths—why has the bustling informal sector been long excluded?
Alfred Mhango, HIV workplace programme coordinator in the Ministry of Labour, says while the informal sector is recognised as a working place like any other, it is hard to reach out to them because they have been operating as disorganised, localised units for years.
“Until now, we have been talking about HIV and Aids in the formal sector because they are better organised. Now that the informal sector is getting united, we will reach them better with targeted messages,” said Mhango.
To close the gap, ILO is working hand in hand with Malawi Union for Informal Sector (Mufis) to come up with a workplace policy which pave the way for greater access to HIV awareness, prevention, treatment, care and support services.
According to ILO national HIV project coordinator Patrick Makondetsa, the joint initiative is in line with the Recommendation 200 on HIV in the world of work which encourages HIV interventions in all sectors.
“We are responding to the recommendation adopted at the 2010 International Labour Conference to ensure that the informal sector, which is highly at risk and often neglected in national responses, has guidelines for creating a safer environment,” says Makondetsa.
As part of the journey, the UN labour organisation and Mufis has been consulting and training cross-border traders, shop owners and other players in the informal sector to further understand the complexity of the risky trends and draft the workplace policy.
Testifying to Mufis’ potential to mobilise people in the sector, the capacity building journey have benefitted people who ply in Blantyre, Lilongwe, Mzuzu, Mangochi and Nkhata Bay which lie along the transport corridors highly affected by HIV.
According to Mufis general secretary Mwanda Chiwanda, the upcoming policy will empower the traders to always insist on safer sex and make their businesses more resilient amid HIV.
“It will also ensure that the mobile populations should be sensitised, encouraged to go for testing and to avoid stigma. This will surely save lives and businesses,” he said. Mufis and ILO envisage having the policy in place by October, about three decades after the country’s first HIV case was diagnosed in 1986.