In the southern part of Africa, seven million people live with HIV and older men are largely responsible for the shockingly high rate of infections among teenage girls and young women.
‘Sugar daddies’ and ‘blessers’ have become a threat to the lives of young women as well as to the fight against HIV. Girls between the ages of 15 and 19 are up to eight times more likely to be HIV-positive than boys the same age. 27-year old Lebogang Motsumi, recounts the moment when she learnt she had contracted HIV from a man who was 10 years older than her.
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The man who infected her with the AIDS virus was a “sugar daddy” or, in local parlance, a “blesser” an older man who “blesses” a younger girl with money and gifts in exchange of sex.
“It was August 15, 2009, at 1:00pm,” she said, recalling the instant when her life changed traumatically. “I was so ignorant,” she said. “I thought HIV had a face” — thin, poor and dying — “and I wasn’t that face.”
These Sugar daddies have been in the spotlight at the International AIDS Conference in Durban this week. According to UNAIDS chief Michel Sidibe, there is only one level for men who put teenage girls at risk of HIV, and that is the zero level.
Every week, an estimated 2,000 South African women between the ages of 15 and 24 contract HIV. Age-gap relationships are the engine driving the HIV epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa, explained Professor Salim Abdool Karim, director of the Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA).
The programme examined the genetic sequences of the HIV virus in a community in the KwaZulu-Natal province, the hotbed of South Africa’s epidemic, to track how it was being spread.
The results revealed a cycle of infection. “Over three out of every five young women, teenagers and women in their very early 20s, acquired HIV from a man around his thirties, about eight to 10 years older.
The skewed power dynamics in these relationships make it difficult for the young women to demand safe sex, increasing their chances of contracting the virus. “You don’t even want to talk condoms, or the guy will think you’re being promiscuous,” said Motsumi, who was 17 when she started going out with her older partner. “You know you should, but he’s in control of the sex: when you have it, how you have it.”
It was a problem made worse by parents and nurses more intent on delivering moral lectures than helping her make informed decisions, she said. As infected young women grow older and reach their thirties, they infect the next group of men “who then infect the next group of young women, and so it goes round and round
However, there is an ongoing campaign on various social media platforms using posts and photographs to condemn the rise and practise of sex between older men and teenage girls.
“It’s transactional, not love,” said Motsumi who, after a string of such relationships, is sharing her experiences at the Durban conference. “I wanted the money, I wanted to fit in, wear the latest sneakers.”
So it’s all about the money. Meanwhile, research says children who are given pocket money at home are two-thirds less likely to have a much older boyfriend compared to their counterparts that did not receive the benefit. These girls were also half less likely to have sex in exchange for food, money or school fees.