From The Guardian (UK)
Eunice Sikhunyane clocks on at 5.30pm for one of the loneliest jobs in the world. The single mother climbs into her cabin, turns on the ignition and spends the next nine hours driving a 16-wheel, 28-tonne truck through the African night.
Eunice is part of a growing occupational group in South Africa: the female trucker. Women are in demand for a job once synonymous with masculinity because of the devastating toll of HIV/Aids on male truck drivers.
About one in four truckers are estimated to be HIV positive. It is a transient lifestyle notorious for long stopovers far from home and easy access to prostitutes. About 3,000 truck drivers are lost annually to Aids as well as accidents, armed hijackings, alcoholism and other causes. The industry says it needs 15,000 new recruits each year. Women are often seen as more likely to take care of themselves and their vehicles.
Eunice, 36, used to drive tractors and fire tenders but joined the Rennies haulage company three years ago because it paid better: R4,700 (£350) a month. She has seen the culture of promiscuity among male drivers.
"Most of the guys sleep with prostitutes and don't know if she's sick or not sick," she said.
"Maybe he will buy a lady and the next day he'll go with his wife. Someone asked me: 'So, will you buy a man?' I said: 'No, I have a boyfriend'."
Truck driving can be dangerous for men and potentially more so for women on deserted, poorly lit roads. But Eunice prefers to work night shifts so she can care for her young son and two daughters during the day. "I've seen lots of hijacks and accidents but it hasn't happened to me," she said. "I once saw a driver who had been shot. I once saw a crash and it was terrible. On another day, it could have been me.
"There was a lady I used to see very often. One day I heard she had a breakdown and called for help. Before they could get to her, some guys came and raped her.
"Most of the guys know my truck is 'the lady's truck'. Maybe they'll try to rape me, but I'm keeping my truck … I'm not afraid, I know God is with me, guiding my truck. I don't think anyone can touch me."
Her employer is among many haulage companies hoping to take on more women. Preggie Odiari, senior transport controller at Rennies, said: "We're looking forward to more. Women are reliable and work equally hard. We want to treat them equally and fairly."
Long-distance truck drivers were widely seen as unwitting agents in accelerating the spread of HIV/Aids. After becoming established in the Great Lakes region in the 70s, the virus rapidly moved outwards on transport and trade routes, with truckers and prostitutes among the biggest victims.
An industry initiative called Trucking Wellness is aimed at South Africa's 70,000 truck drivers. It runs 15 wellness centres on major routes, including two border crossings, and four mobile clinics offering advice, condoms and free anti-retroviral treatments. Trucking Wellness estimates that between 19% and 28% of male truck drivers are HIV positive.
The problem is the subject of research by academics Clara Rubincam and Scott Naysmith for KwaZulu-Natal University. One employer told the study: "There are a lot of drivers dying from Aids. One driver is at home. He is paper thin."
Some employers resist hiring women, claiming pregnancy would interfere with the job. But companies that did employ women gave positive responses, saying they were less likely to engage in risky behaviour. "Ladies don't pick up ladies and ladies don't pick up men."
Concerns about safety remain. Rubincam said: "A lot of women prefer to be out at night so they can look after their kids, but it's risky to be on the road in the middle of the night. Surprisingly, most of the women we spoke to admitted not having any weapons in the cab. They lock the doors and hope for the best."
Happiness Sibisi, 27, became a truck driver after leaving school. She is one of two women drivers, alongside 58 men, employed by Unitrans in Durban. "They treat me like a kid because all of them are very old," she said.
She had one terrifying experience when she was being followed. She called her depot and was told to return. "I went faster but they kept following me.
"I do worry but a job is a job. My husband wonders whether I'll come back in the morning. When someone wants to steal a truck you give it to them, because a truck can be replaced and you can't."
Sunday, May 24, 2009
From The Guardian (UK)