Call to focus on blessers driving HIV who don’t access healthcare services  

During reproductive health month, Right to Care an HIV/Aids Not-for-Profit Organisation has called on South African healthcare workers to actively implement and support strategies that target people at risk and ‘blessers’ who are driving the HIV epidemic among young women.

Prior to the eighth African Conference of Sexual and Reproductive Health (12 – 15 February in Johannesburg), Hermina Dyeshana, programme specialist at Right to Care says, “The conference theme: Advancing the Sexual Health and Reproductive Rights of Girls and Women in Africa requires us to also focus on the men who are driving the epidemic. They are known as  the players, plyers, sugar daddies or blessers and they enter into relationships with young girls as a transaction: you give me unprotected sex and I give you money, a cell phone, airtime, new clothes, make up, school fees, a car, whatever you or your family needs. They are driving a huge healthcare problem.”

Dyeshana says, “The tragedy is that very few of these blessers are accessing health services themselves. Most do not know their HIV status or if they have a sexually transmitted infection. We know there are large numbers of older HIV-infected men who have multiple concurrent partners. Very few of these men typically enter the health system to get support or treatment. This is a major concern, especially since those who are recently infected with HIV carry extremely high viral loads.”

Dyeshana continues, “We cannot alienate the blessers as we need to bring them in and treat them. Right to Care is involved in programmes to reach men in places where they are comfortable, for example at popular social spots clubs, entertainment areas, hostels, taxi ranks and at their places of work. Making condoms available and dispelling myths around condom use is a large part of our work.”

Young women however bear the brunt of the HIV pandemic in SA. Nearly a third of all new HIV infections in South Africa occur amongst 15 – 24-year-olds and adolescent girls are eight times more likely to be infected with HIV that their male counterparts. A recent HSRC study shows that almost a quarter of all new infections occur amongst young women aged 15 – 24.

Says Dyeshana: “It’s all about economics. These young women cannot afford to buy the things that they need and are therefore willing to engage in sexual relations with older men to get them. So young vulnerable woman will gladly accept what her blesser gives her, and she repays him with unprotected sex. Regrettably, the unintended gifts include pregnancy, or an STI like HIV. Then, the happy blesser goes home to his wife or may even stop along the way take part in several other extra-marital relationships.”

Right to Care has welcomed the Minister of Health’s recent launch of a campaign to reduce infections, decrease teenage pregnancy, keep girls in school until matric and provide greater economic opportunities for them so they are not lured into unhealthy blesser relationships.

Says Dyeshana: “Despite the need to focus on the blesser, our primary focus remains on young people. We are developing programmes to reach young men and women in schools and universities and have placed our full weight behind the Department of Basic Education’s national policy on HIV and Aids for learners and educators in public schools and FET institutions.

“We are also creating youth-friendly facilities and services, where a youngster can enter a health facility without feeling judged by either the nursing staff or by the other older patients waiting at the same facility. We are making headway. People are accessing information, services, care, treatment and support. These includetesting and treatment for pregnancy, HIV and STIs, a range of contraceptive options, male circumcision, counselling and education and referrals to relevant facilities.”

Right to Care also supports the DREAMs (determined, resilient, empowered, Aids-free, mentored and safe) programme. Many adolescent girls and young women lack a full range of opportunities and are often devalued because of gender bias, leading them to be seen as unworthy of investment or protection. Social isolation, economic disadvantage, discriminatory cultural norms, orphanhood, gender-based violence, and school drop-out all contribute to girls’ vulnerability to HIV.