”People who don’t know me see this stylishly dressed young woman driving a nice car, and they think, ‘Isn’t she lucky? She has a rich man as a lover to give her things”’, says Angela Shabalala as she manoeuvres her blue BMW sedan on to a highway leading to the Swazi capital, Mbabane.
In fact, the unmarried 27-year-old bank employee used her own salary to buy the car, as well as her dresses, perfumes, jewelry and chic hairstyle.
But who would give Shabalala the benefit of the doubt when the rich men she speaks of — men more popularly referred to as ”sugar daddies” — are a fixture in Swazi life?
Most people are accustomed to seeing wealthy, older men lavish gifts on young lovers. And, while these women might be accused of being high-class prostitutes, they are also regarded with envy.
”Sugar daddies have always been here, for as long as I can remember; but it’s getting worse because young people want a good life, but can’t afford it,” says Nonhlanhla Dlamini, director of the Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse, a non-governmental organisation that provides counselling and medical and legal assistance to abuse victims. At present, about two-thirds of Swazis live below the poverty line of $1 a day.
”When I was a child, kids didn’t compete with each other over material things the way they do now. Now if kids compete with kids from richer families, that means sex — because the only transaction that will allow these girls to get money is by having sex with sugar daddies,” Dlamini adds.
While the term ”sugar daddy” has a slightly comical aspect to it, there is nothing humorous about the sexual exploitation of young women by older men in the age of HIV/Aids. Swaziland has the world’s highest HIV/Aids prevalence, of just under 40%.
”When I speak withÃ¢â‚¬Â¦young boys, they say their girlfriends leave them for sugar daddies, but they come back to their boyfriends because they don’t want it known that they are having relationships with older men,” says Thuli Khumalo, a nurse who counsels young people when they undergo HIV/Aids tests.
”The girls tell me they are not actually attracted to the older men, physically attracted, though some are impressed by wealth and power. They want to be seen with their peers, boyfriends their own age,” she adds.
When the girls do return, they often bring the HIV virus with them, however.
”In this way, the girl can be the bearer of HIV and pass it on to the boy,” says Khumalo.
As for the sugar daddies themselves, they appear loath to place their actions under the microscope.
”I treat my girl good -Ã¢â‚¬’ I give her things. She loves me for it,” said Phinda, a middle-aged bus owner. He sees no difference between a girl having sex with him -Ã¢â‚¬’ or with a boy her own age, except ”When she is with me she doesn’t starve, like she would with some penniless boy.”
Phinda admits that he does not use condoms while having sex with his lover, because he does not like them. And, he hasn’t told his wife about the affair — he does not see the need: ”Swazi women understand a man has more than one woman.”
Charles, a businessman from the commercial hub of Manzini, voices similar sentiments.
”I rent a flat for my other woman, in town. When I’m with her, I’m with her. When I’m with my wife, I’m with my wife,” he says.
Some argue that sugar daddies represent a perversion of the Swazi tradition of polygamy. Others blame parents for failing to ensure that their children are less materialistic.
”People say, ‘Where are the mothers? Why aren’t proper values being taught to these girls?’ Well, they are. But there are a still influenced, seduced girls — and they seem to remain as long as there is poverty in conflict with the desire for a quick and easy good life,” says Dlamini.
”Young people want things easy, given to them. What they must learn is you can acquire your own things, and what you get for yourself you have forever. When you split with a man they can say they want their things back, but what you have earned is yours,” she notes.
Dlamini believes that Swazi women who have become successful by dint of their own efforts need to be given more prominence in the country.
”We need role models, women who stand up and say ‘I did this on my own.’ People think women get things from men: when you see a young woman driving a car, people think, ‘Oh, she got that from a man’,” she says.
In short, Swaziland needs more women like Angela Shabalala.
”My family and friends know I earned what I have through hard work. I am not afraid to live well to show other young women what you can accomplish on your own. You don’t need a rich, older lecher to get what you want,” she says. — IPS