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‘Sugar daddies’ and ‘blessers’: A threat to AIDS fight

Lebogang Motsumi, 27, still remembers the moment when she learnt she had contracted HIV from a man a decade her senior. “It was August 15, 2009, at 1:00pm,” she said, recalling the instant when her life changed traumatically. “I was so ignorant,” she said. “I thought HIV had a face” – thin, poor and dying – “and I wasn’t that face.” 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, South Africa 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). —Agencies

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