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, often poorer girl with money and gifts and expects sex in return.
The danger of the “blessers” has been in the spotlight at the International AIDS Conference in Durban this week.
In South Africa, seven million people live with HIV — and older men are thought to be largely to blame for the shockingly high rate of infections among teenage girls and young women.
“To the ‘blessers’, there is only one level I want: the zero level, zero tolerance for men who put adolescent girls at risk for HIV,” UNAIDS chief Michel Sidibe declared on Monday at the conference’s opening session.
Every week, an estimated 2,000 South African women between the ages of 15 and 24 contract 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.
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,” Abdool Karim told AFP.
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.
In 2013, researchers in Britain and South Africa published the result of interviews with 3,500 teenagers, showing that by narrowing the poverty gap, “blessers” could be thwarted.
Teenage girls from households which received child support were two-thirds less likely to have a much older boyfriend compared to counterparts from homes that did not receive the benefit.
These girls were also half less likely to have sex in exchange for food, money or school fees.