Vulnerable young girls, who are “preyed on by older men” and engage in unprotected sex to get their fix, also put themselves at serious risk of HIV. Some have the disease.
These are findings in an ongoing research study by Dr Dhee Naidoo, a researcher at the Human Sciences Research Council.
The study looks at behavioural factors that affect the spread of sexually transmitted infections and HIV in Indian communities.
Peer pressure and a willingness to experiment with sex at a young age are other factors for them engaging in sex and falling pregnant.
Researchers interviewed 100 girls aged 12 and 13 in Phoenix and Chatsworth, 15 of whom were pregnant. Seven of the pregnant 15 were HIV positive.
Naidoo said the number of pregnant girls was high considering the small sample size.
“Communities should be concerned because of the high level of drug abuse, which is leading to (the girls) selling themselves to buy drugs. This ultimately comes down to poverty, where we see younger and younger girls selling their bodies for money, and drugs are the only coping mechanism they have.”
A community volunteer for more than 25 years, who preferred not to be named, said girls became hooked on drugs through free samples given to them by predatory drug runners.
“Gradually they become hooked and in their desperation to get a fix, they start to sell their bodies.”
She added: “Some parents are already hooked on sugars, so they send their young girls out to sell themselves to feed their (the parents’) habits. And the young ones usually end up addicts.”
In some cases, parents are rewarded by traffickers with drugs or money when they sell their daughters, she said.
Young girls also fall pregnant because older male relatives rape them: “Poverty and lack of privacy puts these young ones at the mercy of predators.”
Sam Pillay, director of Anti-Drug Forum South Africa, was also aware of parents selling their daughters’ bodies for drugs.
“For those hooked on sugars, it is not negotiable that they get their fix every day. So they will do whatever is necessary. Some will sell the kid.”
He said lack of parental supervision was another factor: “Sometimes both parents are working and girls grow up on their own, and the influence (to do drugs) from their peer group is great.”
Pillay added that girls in these communities were often poor and got into “blesser scenarios” where they exchanged sex for money and possessions.
Regarding the 15 girls found to be pregnant in the research, Pillay said: “I’m not surprised. We have as many as 10 to 12 in one school (in KZN) in some cases. If you look at the stats, the problem is getting bigger.”
Naidoo said intervention strategies in Indian communities focusing on drug use and safe sex needed to target children at school level.
“Interventions to reduce early sexual debut are needed, (which go about) delaying early sex among young females.
“This includes religious injunction against premarital sex, prevention of HIV infection, fear of pregnancy and, linked to this, dropping out of school.”
Psychologist Rakhi Beekrum said girls in these situations could suffer low self-esteem and guilt in later life, and that could affect their ability to form healthy relationships.
She echoed Naidoo’s point that intervention at school level was key, and added that parents could play a major role.
“It needs to start with parents setting a good example. Parents need to take responsibility for instilling values, monitoring their children and having appropriate discipline.
“Expose children to value-based literature, which is often available at religious institutions.”
She said dependence on substance abuse was indicative of unaddressed social problems in these communities.
“There is a larger social aspect of unwanted babies. With so many issues complicating the teenager’s life, many are likely to experience low self-esteem and poor motivation.”
Beekrum advised a gentle approach when dealing with teenagers who had contracted sexually transmitted diseases or fallen pregnant.