South Africa thinks it can beat HIV by weaning girls off sugar daddies

South Africa wants to discourage transactional sex.
South Africa wants to discourage transactional sex.
Image: Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko
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South Africa’s health department will launch a project to “wean” young women off sugar daddies, in its latest bid to stop the spread of HIV. The $180 million project will focus on young women aged 15 to 24 and the usually older men who are “infecting and impregnating them,” said health minister Aaron Motsoaledi.

The project’s five objective include decreasing gender-based violence, keeping girls in school and increasing economic opportunities for young women. The program is funded by PEPFAR,  the White House’s AIDS relief, the German development agency GIZ and other South African government departments that will also participate in the project.

South Africa has had the world’s largest HIV/AIDS treatment and counseling program since 2009 said Motsoaledi, reducing the disease’s deadly reach, but young women have been beyond this grasp.

“We realized that all our successes about HIV/AIDS are about biomedical interventions. When it comes to behavioral interventions we are really facing an uphill battle,” Motsoaledi told a local radio station, adding that the 15-24 year-old women were giving the ministry a “tough time.”

Girls in this demographic are eight times more likely to be HIV positive. In 14 southern and East African countries, studies show that there are as many as 5,000 new infections each week in this age group, half of them occurring in South Africa, said the minister.

Weaning young women from their dangerous sugar daddies will include setting up projects in regions with high HIV-prevalence that will include family planning and making clinics “youth friendly,” Motsoaledi describes. The aim is also to talk to talk to older men who date young women, and encourage them to get tested for AIDS and explore an older dating pool.

An empty message.
An empty message.
Image: Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko

“In most, most, most, most times the reason there are those relationships are because of gender imbalance and economic imbalance,” said Motsoaledi. But that economic and gender imbalance doesn’t only occur among impoverished young women and much older men. The phenomenon of “blessers”— a trend that evolved from social media’s #blessed tag and for which there is now an app and a weekly social club in South Africa—shows educated young women struggling to support themselves and their families and turning to men of any age to foot the bill in exchange for sex.

In 2012, South African health officials first began spreading the message that transactional sex was one of the leading causes of HIV, with large billboards plastered all over KwaZulu-Natal, the province with the highest HIV prevalence. Critics dismissed it as a moralizing message, that was supported by little correlating evidence and instead by the “yuckiness” of older men having sex with much younger women. Similar moralizing messages have also failed, as the US learned after spending billions in Africa telling people to abstain from sex.

This anti-sugar daddy message harks to an era of AIDS messaging that was premised on putting the fear of death into people oversimplifying a much more nuanced issue, says Tessa Dooms, head of the non-governmental organization Youth Lab. Those slogans didn’t work either and were soon dropped for more life-affirming messages.

Educating young women and giving them jobs is not enough to empower them if the society they live in places little value in women already, says Dooms. Women in South Africa are often exposed to subliminal message that their worth comes from their relation to men, rather than their own strengths and abilities.

“The empowerment of young women is not enough. What it is, is a culture of patriarchy and gender roles that makes it acceptable and encouraging for women to depend on men,” said Dooms. “This is about access to sex but it’s also about access to control over young women’s bodies and control over their economic futures.”

Approaching the problem from the point of HIV prevention is not enough, she says, what it needs is a social overhaul that may take another generation.