SA vil­lage girls fight scourge of the ‘blessers’

Lesotho Times - - Africa -

JO­HAN­NES­BURG — In the young women’s play a school­girl comes home and tries to tell her mother what she has learned in class. “HIV!” yells her an­gry mother, to the gig­gles of the au­di­ence. “This is talk for the poor­est peo­ple. Only poor dirty peo­ple have HIV.” The mother is just as dis­mis­sive when she hears from a neigh­bour that her daugh­ter has been seen get­ting into a car out­side school, the car of a known “blesser” — lo­cal par­lance for a kind of sin­is­ter su­gar daddy.

The two dozen or so girls in the au­di­ence lean for­ward in their plas­tic chairs, in rows on a sandy dirt floor un­der a tar­pau­lin stretched across walls of a half-built house, and nod in recog­ni­tion as the plot turns to the daugh­ter and her blesser, a shiny-suited older man with a smart­phone and a per­sua­sive man­ner who be­stows on her the gift of a fake de­signer hand­bag. To cut an en­er­get­i­cally acted drama short, he ends up leav­ing her both preg­nant and HIV pos­i­tive after a few nights out, be­fore rap­ing an­other girl who re­sists his charms.

The blessers phe­nom­e­non, which be­gan in the richer sub­urbs of Jo­han­nes­burg, 100km away from this lit­tle town of Temba, is seen as a ma­jor threat to South Africa’s poor­est girls by ex­perts who blame the cul­ture for a rise in HIV in­fec­tions. At 7 mil­lion, the coun­try al­ready has the high­est num­ber of peo­ple in the world liv­ing with HIV.

“A lot of young women grow­ing up in poor sin­gle-mother house­holds in ru­ral ar­eas are prey to all the so­cial ills,” said Phi­nah Kodisang. “The com­mon thread of young women here is that they want to find a way out of poverty.”

Kodisang is from Soul­city, which runs 1,000 Rise clubs, groups to help girls nav­i­gate the ob­sta­cles lit­ter­ing their lives and which are sup­ported by the gov­ern­ment, and the Global Fund, which was set up to fight Aids.

“The girls are con­stantly preyed on, they look up to an older man who makes prom­ises,” Kodisang said with some bit­ter­ness. “Some of them come into the vil­lages when school is com­ing out and pick on a pretty girl who is bare­foot; they know she has no money.

“Un­for­tu­nately, none of them are of­fer­ing school uni­form or school fees. They are of­fer­ing cheap shoes or nice hair to a girl who would love some­thing to make her feel spe­cial.”

Gen­er­ally mar­ried, al­ways older, blessers are men who use their money to con­trol young women. The term has be­come so en­trenched that there are four “lev­els” of blesser: at the low­est level the man of­fers mo­bile phone data cards and vis­its to drink­ing clubs.

Then there’s gifts or much-cov­eted hair ex­ten­sions. At the high­est lev­els phones, cars and trips abroad are of­fered. Pro­fes­sor Salim Ab­dool Karim, di­rec­tor of the Cen­tre for the Aids Pro­gramme of Re­search, told last week’s In­ter­na­tional Aids Con­fer­ence in Dur­ban that in­ter­gen­er­a­tional sex, led by blessers, was driv­ing HIV in­fec­tion rates.

The cen­tre looked at how the HIV virus was be­ing spread in Kwazulu-natal — a prov­ince badly hit by the epi­demic. “More than three out of ev­ery five young women ac­quired HIV from a man in his 30s,” said Karim.not quite pros­ti­tu­tion, not quite su­gar daddy, some­times pae­dophilia, the blessers cul­ture has taken off on so­cial me­dia but also in schools. And the power dy­nam­ics make it dif­fi­cult for young women to de­mand safe sex.

In Temba, the Rise girls moved their seats into a cir­cle to talk about how they can re­sist. Vai­en­tia, 15, said she and her friend were locked in a class­room by a teacher. “He wouldn’t let us out un­til my friend gave him her phone num­ber. She said no but even­tu­ally she gave him the wrong one. He was an­gry and con­fronted her and she had to give him her real one. Then he was ring­ing all the time, morn­ing, noon and night and say­ing dirty things to her. You can’t tell any­body. Who can you tell? Maybe he will give you bad marks.”

Vai­en­tia took mat­ters into her own hands. “I went to the teacher and I told him that if he wasn’t stop­ping this then me, my­self, I will go and find some­one who will beat him.”asked who among them had been ap­proached sex­u­ally by a teacher, arms shoot up and the young women start jostling to tell their ex­pe­ri­ences.

“I didn’t re­port it, I just ig­nored him. There are no peo­ple to re­port to and he would kill me,” said Lerato.

“Some teach­ers say, ‘ I will give you high marks’,” said Lindiwe Baloyi. “I had a teacher who wanted to take me to lunch and have sex .”Some schools do try to tackle the is­sue said Glory, 14: “In my school we had two teach­ers like this. One im­preg­nated a girl and one girl was raped. Those teach­ers were thrown out of school. School talk to us now about how blessers work.”

In a coun­try where sex has be­come a trans­ac­tion be­tween the poor and the richer, the young and the older, ev­ery week around 2,000 women aged 15 to 24 con­tract HIV. They are now the largest at-risk group, with those aged 15 to 19 up to eight times more likely to be HIV pos­i­tive than boys.

The Rise young women learn about HIV and the ben­e­fits of ed­u­ca­tion, in a place where the odds are stacked against them. Rates of rape and do­mes­tic vi­o­lence are higher than those of un­em­ploy­ment (run­ning at 26 per­cent) and school drop-outs. Back-street abor­tions kill and dam­age dozens ev­ery year.

Rudo, an 18-year-old from Rand­fontein, said she let her par­ents think she worked as a beau­ti­cian, to ex­plain her el­e­gant nails and braided hair. “My first blesser just gave me clothes, but I left school be­cause he would call me to him in the day­time and beat me if I didn’t go. This one is num­ber four blesser and a bet­ter level than be­fore. I don’t worry about safe sex be­cause I know he is only mar­ried and me. But I think the school­girls should be pro­tected from blessers.”

South Africa’s health min­is­ter, Aaron Mot­soaledi, last month an­nounced a cam­paign to raise op­por­tu­ni­ties for young women and tackle “the men who are in­fect­ing and im­preg­nat­ing them”., say­ing those from poorer back­grounds were most at risk of be­ing ex­ploited by blessers. At the launch, dur­ing which deputy pres­i­dent Cyril Ramaphosa chanted: “Down with blessers! Down with su­gar dad­dies!”, the gov­ern­ment promised to “wean” women away from blessers.

But Dit­shego, of the “dat­ing” firm Blesserfinder — whose slo­gan is: “Money is al­ways a fac­tor in re­la­tion­ships, this is just an up­front and hon­est way of dat­ing for our modern times” — says un­til that hap­pens de­mand will go on ris­ing. Nelly Shamase, a writer for the Mail & Guardian, said Jo­han­nes­burg’s north­ern sub­urbs were now “blesser cen­tral”. “The two decades since the ad­vent of democ­racy have seen a steady mush­room­ing of nou­veaux riches in the black com­mu­nity. Po­lit­i­cal con­nec­tions and bet­ter op­por­tu­ni­ties have mon­e­tar­ily eman­ci­pated a num­ber of black men. And what’s one of the things that some of th­ese men like to do? Bless their women with shop­ping sprees, over­seas trips, pam­per­ing ses­sions.

“Cer­tain ed­u­cated women of all ages hop on the blesser train and move in blesser cir­cles where the blessed so­cialise and com­pare life­styles.a joke do­ing the rounds is that blessers are the main rea­son why the air route to Dubai and back is so prof­itable — ev­ery­body knows that blessers love to spoil their women with trips to the United Arab Emi­rates.”

But, for Temba girls, blessers of­fer sim­pler things. “For the poor com­mu­ni­ties, it’s a mo­bile phone, a pair of jeans, a hair­style. It’s dif­fi­cult when they are of­fered things they don’t have, and the ad­mi­ra­tion of a richer man in his flashy car,” said Kodisang. “But no abil­ity to de­mand safe sex.”

As the AIDS con­fer­ence ended last Fri­day, Unaids chief Michel Sidibé said: “To the blessers, there is only one level I want: zero level, zero tolerance for men who put ado­les­cent girls at risk.”

— Guardian

Mem­bers of re­gional rise Clubs per­form in scenes to raise aware­ness of the dan­gers of ‘blessers’ in their area.

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