Sugar Daddies are Definitely NOT Sweet

The situation is all too common…a young girl is looking to fill a void left by an absent or abusive father, and an older man seizes the opportunity to offer comfort and gifts – at a price. The term ‘Sugar Daddy’ is an awfully sweet-sounding way to refer to men who leverage their power and wealth to bait young girls into a sexual trap.

In Lesotho (southern Africa), sugar daddies are called ‘blessers’. As girls’ bodies start to change in early adolescence, older men take notice. The girls, often orphans with no emotional support, crave the attention and feel that it is cool to have an older man show interest in them. A mother from Lesotho explains, “we find that for some girls who have grown up without a father, these sugar daddies provide something like a ‘fatherly love’, but really they are exploiting them.”

Blessers initiate relationships by buying girls presents ranging from small trinkets to new clothing to cell phones. At first the gifts are given with sweet words and compliments and the girls are thrilled to have new, luxury items. But before long, blessers are asking for favours in return and they only have one thing in mind.

All relationships between girls and blessers are sexual in nature. Many girls become pregnant, which typically terminates the relationship because blessers will not take responsibility for impregnating the girls. The blesser returns to his wife and children, while the girl is left with the shame of telling her elders that she had a relationship with a man the age of her father.

Perhaps even more devastating than pregnancy, many girls contract HIV as a result of their blesser relationships. These men typically know their status yet they convince girls that having sex with a condom is a bad idea (some men go so far as to say that condoms cause kidney disease in men – a claim with no truth whatsoever). The girls have no defence and no retribution; their shame keeps them from asking for help.

Shocking as it is, some girls intentionally seek out blessers, entering into relationships with a list of goods they hope to secure. These girls know that this behaviour is dangerous, yet the appeal of accessing nice items is too strong to resist. Most girls do not yet recognize that the gifts are not worth the cost of what they are required to give up. It often takes hindsight for the girls to recognize that they do not really want to be in a relationship with a blesser. Many wish they could return to childhood and forget the adult world they abruptly entered.

Ending a relationship between a blesser and a girl is at least as unsavoury as the relationship itself. Most girls have no say whatsoever, and may even be further victimized for trying to end things. One girl shared, “my friend is trying to end her involvement with a sugar daddy and now he wants to kill her. She has changed her phone number too – he is stalking her.”

Some parents of adolescent girls try to warn their daughters of the risks associated with sugar daddies; others encourage it. Regardless, the girls are often more interested in what their peers are up to rather than listening to their parents. For parents with daughters who board at school, the concern is even worse. One mother explains:

“My daughter normally uses public [transportation] to go home. One day, I called her to check in and I heard men’s voices in the background. I started to panic. It was the case that they were just men near the bus, but of course I was so worried that maybe a man had offered her a ride in his car.”

The prevalence of sugar daddy relationships is difficult to determine since both the girls and the blessers go to great efforts to keep their relationships a secret – girls because of the shame, blessers because of the risk to their marriages and family relationships. What we do know for certain is that these relationships are too common. In any high school, it would not be difficult to find several girls who sneak off to meet their blessers after school.

Sugar daddies, as the adults in the relationships, need to take responsibility for protecting rather than preying on young girls. These relationships are dangerous and harmful, often leading to a lifetime of trauma. The good news is that this problem is relatively straightforward to address – men need to stop engaging in sexual relationships with young girls!

Menstrual Health Realities in Africa

This is an interview with the Southern African AIDS Trust (SAT) youth hub coordinator Ruvarashe Miti, who is based in Zimbabwe. SAT youth hubs are led by young people and are geared towards youth outreach, advocacy, and awareness activities around sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR) issues.

The Zimbabwe Youth Hub Team, photo credit: Ruvarashe Miti

Nsovo Mayimele: What does menstrual health mean to you?

Ruvarashe Miti: Menstruation is linked to puberty, depending on the individual it can begin from the age of ten and marks a transition towards becoming a woman. Menstrual health is about having the knowledge and information around menstruation so that a girl’s needs can be met e.g. having sanitary ware, safe changing rooms and an ability to seek support and speak openly about menstruation, which is widely perceived as a taboo topic.

NM: Why is menstrual health important?

RM: SAT’s Girl Plan programmes (which are also for boys) place menstrual health among its key themes for innovative models for strengthened SRHR interventions. The themes are: ending gender-based violence, keeping girls in safe schools, comprehensive sexuality knowledge, ending child marriage and menstrual health. Among its programme activities, SAT in Zimbabwe is working with a community-based organization called Chiedza to produce re-useable sanitary pads.  The Youth Hub wholeheartedly support SAT’s efforts as menstrual health affects girls’ school attendance as well as their overall health and well-being, and not only during their period.

NM: Describe the communities you work in with the youth hub?

RM: The communities we live in today have strong existing beliefs on menstruation and so it can seem that there is limited space for change. There are many girls who come from families who are poor and unable to buy sanitary ware, some even use clothes when menstruating. Even if we do outreach around reusable sanitary ware or menstrual cups, it is not a given that the products will be used given power dynamics and existing traditions/ beliefs.

NM: Tell us about how you celebrated Menstrual Hygiene Day 2017? 

RM: SAT and the Youth Hub in Zimbabwe have been hosting weekly Menstrual Health Sessions to discuss various issues around menstrual health, like access to safe sanitary ware. The sessions culminated in an epic commemoration of Menstrual Hygiene Day 28 May with a Health Fitness session that reached out to communities around Harare.

NM: What are your goals for menstrual health, both in Zimbabwe and in Africa more widely?

RM: In Zimbabwe and Africa, every woman and girl should have adequate access to menstrual products and the necessary facilities e.g. clean water and changing facilities both at school and at home. No woman or girl should face any stigma – everyone deserves privacy and dignity.

NM: Who are your biggest supporters?

RM: The project is largely driven by youth and would not be possible without the many passionate volunteers that we have on board. Young people have already taken ownership of the project by organising outreach activities to three communities in Zimbabwe, and we have organised mass media campaigns too.

NM: What challenges do you face? 

RM: The projects are largely driven by females, with little male involvement and even during outreach activities, few men attend the sessions. There is a need for more male involvement to counter the stigma and be part of the solutions.

Repairing the Mind-Body Connection After Trauma

 “Yoga can build back people’s ability to slow down in reacting to stress, to re-build the connection with their bodies, and engage in self-care.”
– Rebecca Epstein, Executive Director, Center on Poverty and Inequality

A recent report from Georgetown Law revealed a new avenue of trauma-informed treatment for adolescent girls. Rebecca Epstein, Executive Director of Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality and current yoga teacher, co-authored the report alongside Thalia González, Associate Professor at Occidental College. The report explores the potential of somatic interventions to improve the physical and psychological wellbeing of girls who have experienced trauma. Somatic interventions – meaning interventions that focus on the connection between the participant’s mind and body – are not new, but this research is showing new levels of promise for adolescent girls and young women.

“Trauma is part of many marginalized girls’ lives,” Epstein stated in a recent interview. “Across the board, girls have experienced every form of trauma studied at a higher rate than boys…yoga is one way to try to repair the mind-body connection.” Somatic interventions are made up of three core components: mindfulness, regulated breathing, and physical poses.

Epstein and González specify that, to be effective, somatic interventions targeting girls who have experienced trauma need to be trauma-informed, gender-responsive, and culturally competent. The teachers must pay attention to girls’ specific needs, provide options and choices, and acknowledge that different cultural experiences may affect a girl’s reaction to somatic interventions and the practices involved therein.

A stand-out participant named Rocsana exemplifies how somatic interventions, specifically yoga, can help girls heal. In a phone interview, she described how yoga taught her to be calm, to be more patient with her children, and how to think before she reacts. She practices yoga at home with her children, along with breathing and mindfulness exercises, and states that the techniques helped her leave an abusive relationship.

Now a yoga teacher herself in her own community, Rocsana aims to empower other girls through the methods she learned from the California-based Art of Yoga Project.

“The girls that I teach are young girls and they’re mostly Latina and African American. I want them to feel strong and powerful. I want them to feel good about themselves.”

A key element of somatic interventions is an appreciation of girls’ intersecting identities and individualized experiences. One of the report’s key recommendations reads, “Account for differences in types of trauma experienced by girls based on their intersectional identity.” Many holistic approaches to girl-centered programming acknowledge that girls’ experiences are directly related to the various, and often multiple, types of oppression and discrimination they face.

As Epstein describes, girls’ overlapping identities – be them race, gender, sexual identity, or others – affect how they experience trauma and how they are treated if they should choose to disclose or report their experience. “Women of color are responded to differently when they experience trauma…they are often ignored or blamed for their trauma.” Epstein underscores that girls of color are often seen as complicit in their trauma or are blamed for their experience.

Trauma-informed somatic interventions that acknowledge and address intersectionality allow girls to reclaim their agency, their sense of choice, and their ability to separate the trauma from their self-worth, dignity, and potential.

The use of somatic interventions signals an advanced appreciation for girls’ holistic wellbeing. As evinced by the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study, childhood trauma can lead to long-term mental and physical health effects. These include depression, suicidal tendencies, heart disease, and cancer.

Epstein and González see great potential in using somatic interventions to mitigate these effects and interrupt the inter-generational cycle of violence. “While there has not yet been a mainstream connection between the body and the mind and trauma and the body,” says González, “we see this report as a critical next step in advancing policies and practices aimed at providing system-involved girls with the foundation for a healthy and successful future.”

Perhaps this report will help those in the adolescent girl field make the connection and envision new, holistic ways to help girls improve their wellbeing.

Shattering the Norm and Creating a New Future for Adolescent Girls

“As a girl, all I knew was housekeeping. I was the only girl at home and I had to wash all my brothers’ clothes. In school, I wasn’t allowed to participate in all the activities because I was a girl,” explains Belkis, a 39-year-old mother in Corbano Sur, Dominican Republic.

Belkis shared her story during a parents’ meeting held as part of the Girls’ Education and Empowerment Regional Program, an initiative co-created by The Resource Foundation (TRF) and Johnson & Johnson in 2016.  Her story is not unlike those of many other women across Latin America. The choice to go to school, to start a family, to work – these were not decisions Belkis made for herself, but rather the products of generations of customs, traditions, and circumstances surrounding the roles and rights of women and girls.

While significant strides have been made in Latin America, the challenges that Belkis faced as a girl and adolescent persist. Forced marriage, early pregnancy, and violence are only a handful of the barriers that disadvantaged girls may face in pursuit of education and the chance at a more hopeful and healthy future. Lack of information and a taboo attitude towards sexual and reproductive health and rights further contribute to high pregnancy and school drop-out rates among teenage girls. Combined, Latin America and the Caribbean have the third highest teen pregnancy rate in the world. In the region, 18 percent of births occur among adolescent mothers, and even more girls become sexually active from a young age. Equally concerning, in Latin America, only 28 percent of young people from poor families complete secondary education, compared to 80 percent among the richest families.

Cultural norms also lead girls to drop out of school to meet short-term obligations like caring for younger siblings and supporting parents’ informal work, particularly in communities whose cultural traditions prioritize boys’ schooling and girls’ role in the home. Without providing girls access to the academic and personal growth that come with an education, the cycle continues.

Recognizing the importance of education in opening the door to more future opportunities, TRF and Johnson & Johnson, in collaboration with five nonprofit organizations across five countries in Latin America, designed and launched the Girls’ Education and Empowerment Regional Program. The initiative embraces collaboration and inclusion to engage different groups of community members, each of which are on the front lines of shaping the opportunities that girls should have access to throughout their lifetime. Teachers, parents, and male and female students take part in activities focused on health, gender equity, violence prevention, and the importance of education.

School administrators and teachers in the Dominican Republic take part in a brainstorming activity as part of a Gender and Education training workshop

By involving local government, health, and education officials, the project works across sector lines to foster an environment where girls are empowered from every angle to make decisions about their health, their futures, and their self-worth. These layers of support help to strengthen families, caregivers, and communities as a whole, increasing the chance that the effects of the program last well beyond the life of the project.

Belkis recognizes that her 12-year-old daughter, Fabia, has a bright future ahead of her. “This project has helped me to understand that my daughter has the same rights as her brothers…I am raising her differently than my mother raised me. Fabia already recognizes that she can do things that I wasn’t allowed to do… I am sure that things will be different than they were for me at her age. This new outlook on life will generate positive changes for her in the future.”

March 8 marks International Women’s Day. In collaboration with partners, Johnson & Johnson is sharing the stories of women on the front lines of care, and the ways in which inspiring women are improving health for themselves, their families and their communities. Share your story during the Storytelling Hour on March 7 at 11am EST, by following #WomenInspire on Twitter.

Cover photo: Fabia Contreras, Age 12, Corbano Sur Community and Program Beneficiary

Credit for all images: The Resource Foundation 

MLM_250x250x300Marcela Lopez-Macedonio is President & CEO of The Resource Foundation (TRF), a leading nonprofit organization founded in 1987 that facilitates philanthropy to the Americas and the Caribbean. Over the past 16 years, Marcela has expanded TRF’s growth through partnership-building and collaboration with multi-sector stakeholders, including multi-national donors and over 370 local organizations, to tackle some of the region’s most pressing challenges.