So said MEC for Health in the Western Cape Dr Nomafrench Mbombo at the launch of the First Things First initiative at the South Cape TVET College by the Higher Education and Training Department’s HIV/Aids programme last week.
“Beaufort West is particularly vulnerable to HIV, largely because of the location of the town, on the N1 between Johannesburg and Cape Town,” she said.
“The town has become a preferred stop for long-distance truck drivers who frequently pay for sex, placing these sex workers at a higher risk of contracting the virus.
The town is also isolated and out of reach of many HIV programmes. Sexual and gender-based violence and alcohol and drug abuse are also chronic social drivers of the pandemic in the region.”
Mbombo said although new infection rates were on the decline in the province, the Central Karoo, which comprises Beaufort West, Prince Albert and Laingsburg municipalities, has the highest figures for new infection rates when compared with the five other districts.
Of the 31892 people tested for HIV in the Central Karoo in 2016/17, 415 proved positive. Among those, 8740 tested were between the ages of 15 and 24.
“Although HIV has been decreasing in the Western Cape since 2009, the issue of new HIV infections among young people, specifically girls, is prostitution.
“Central Karoo has a smaller population compared with the other five districts. It’s the smallest but the area is very vast and it’s rural.
“The HIV infection rate in Central Karoo is roughly 12%, but when you zoom into Beaufort West you find that it is 16%, which is above the average rate of the district.”
Locals said the town had become a one-stop shop for underage prostitution, with children as young as 10 said to be involved.
Euna Wentzel, founder of the South African Agency for Change, an organisation aimed at improving the lives of women and children, said poverty was what usually drove young women to the roads to sell themselves.
“The biggest challenge in this community is poverty; most families are dependent on social grants, a mother who has no other source of income will have more children as a means of getting more money, regardless of the possibility of contracting HIV or being unable to provide for all those children,” she said.
“Most people look to the municipality to provide jobs but when that is not available, and with Beaufort West being close to the N1 with the truckers, people will do anything to provide for themselves.”