Girls caught in blessers’ grip

Picture: Chris Collingridge

The practice in which young girls and women are bought expensive items by older men or “blessers” in return for sex has become widespread in Hout Bay.

According to social workers from Hout Bay-based non-profit Community Cohesion, the trend has become the “new normal”, particularly in Imizamo Yethu and Hangberg.

They estimate that half of the men in Imizamo Yethu act as blessers to younger women and girls.

In some instances, girls as young as 12 are offering their bodies in return for gifts like branded clothing, expensive hair weaves and cash. Their blessers, who mostly work in the restaurant or fishing industries, range in age from 25 upwards.
Social worker Angie Nyamunetsa and social auxiliary worker Zimkhita Ntelezi are deeply concerned about the impact “blesser culture” is having on Hout Bay’s youth.

“Very often, particularly during the tourist season, a man working at a restaurant can be tipped R1 000 during his shift. The fishermen go away for months at a time, but on their return, they get all their money in one go. In both cases the men have a lot of money,” Ms Nyamunetsa said.

“The young girls have learnt that these men give out money to girls who go with them. Often they will learn this from their older sisters, who they see wearing nice clothing brands or having expensive weaves. So they do the same thing.”

Shebeens have become the primary contact points between the blessers and girls. With more than 40 such establishments in Imizamo Yethu, girls of school-going age spend entire weekends in the taverns, accepting drinks and gifts from much older men.
Frequently they arrive at school on a Monday hungover.

“Some of these men are married, but their families are back home in their own countries. The wives who are with their husbands don’t question what they’re up to, because their shifts end very late at night and they believe them to be at work,” Ms Ntelezi said.

Given the young age of the girls, some naively believe their blessers simply enjoy their company and do not expect sex in return. However, most understand that at some point they will be required to offer their bodies in return for the lavish gifts.

“The girls will often call their blesser ‘my boyfriend’. But the girls sometimes have many blessers at a time. They know when a man has money or doesn’t. So the girls have this system. As soon as they see another one of their blessers has money, they will go to him,” Ms Ntelezi said.

There are obvious consequences for these young women. Safeguarding against rape is not always possible, and even in instances when a girl has been victimised, the likelihood of her reporting the case to the police is minimal.

“They know that people will judge them, because they have been accepting gifts from their blessers for some time,” Ms Nyamunetsa, said.

“To make matters worse, we have experienced cases where the girl’s own family encourages her to have a blesser, believing that some of the money she receives can come their way.”

While blessers are present in Hangberg, the social workers said the dynamic was different.

For one, the pool of blessers was significantly smaller given there were fewer people working in Hangberg than was the case in Imizamo Yethu.

For another, girls were offered drugs in return for sex, rather than alcohol.

“The girls eventually will be lured into prostitution, so there is more of a business component, whereas in IY it is a status thing for older men to sleep with young girls ,” Ms Nyamunetsa said.

She said blesser culture had a knock-on effect. Because young women and girls were being “blessed” by much older men, their male peers at school would, turn their attention to even younger girls in primary school.

“Unfortunately, given the age of the children involved, unprotected sex frequently occurs, leading to sexually transmitted diseases and teenage pregnancy.”

Imizamo Yethu resident Nosi Siswana, 28, is the mother of a nine-year-old girl.

Even as a teenager, she was aware of the encroachment of blesser culture on her community, and is doing everything in her power to ensure her daughter does not follow the trend.

“When I was younger, we saw people like (South African socialite) Khanyi Mbau, who got everything she ever wanted by going with much older men. I think that was the start of it,” Ms Siswana said.

“Girls saw that and believed they could have all those things as well. It is now a big problem in our community. It is worrying. I can’t let my child play freely, although obviously she does need to mix with other children.”

Through her involvement with aftercare groups, she learnt that many 15-year-olds had taken on blessers, who bought them expensive cellphones and alcohol.

Asked whether she had heard of parents encouraging their daughters to have a blesser, she confirmed she had. “I think in homes where there is a mom and a dad, you will find there is less chance of a girl taking a blesser. But when you have single parents ,the chances increase. Here you have a person who comes along and promises a girl everything, and she gets it.”

Ms Siswana said everyone in her community was aware of the blesser culture, but it was not something they wanted to confront. “I think for a lot of people it is embarrassing to talk about.”

Ms Nyamunetsa believes shebeens needs to be screened more closely if the trend is to be stamped out.

“No under 18s means no under 18s. Most of them are allowing the kids in. So this needs to be policed better,” she said.

“We also need to start enforcing the child (protection) laws. If a person is caught having sex with a minor, they must be prosecuted and jailed.

“But we know this is going to be difficult. You have teenage girls having abortions all the time, yet there is never any follow-up on who impregnated her.”

Hout Bay police spokeswoman Warrant Officer Tanya Lesch said it was the first time she had heard of the trend.

“Anyone with further information or being targeted in such a way, must please report it to SAPS, so that the perpetrators can be brought to book,” she said.

“Parents should also take responsibility for their children and know their whereabouts, especially at night time. SAPS are concentrating on visiting and closing of shebeens almost daily.”