SA village girls fight scourge of the ‘blessers’
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.”
Members of regional rise Clubs perform in scenes to raise awareness of the dangers of ‘blessers’ in their area.