As the world continues to fight the spread of HIV/AIDS, the strides made in halting the disease are in peril in some vulnerable groups, including the teenaged girls of South Africa — especially its so-called “taxi queens.”
“After all of the saved and improved lives thanks to prevention, treatment and care, after all of the battles won against prejudice and ignorance about this disease, after all of the wonderful milestones achieved, AIDS is still the number two cause of death for those aged 10-19 globally — and number one in Africa,” according to UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake.
The term “queen” is used to describe school girls who are sexually exploited by taxi drivers in exchange for travel. Typically, “[these women] engage in transactional sex, have limited HIV knowledge and cannot negotiate condom use,” according to a statement from the Amaqhawe Project, a program led by a local NGO.
These women are involved with multiple taxi drivers as sexual partners, they added, and they are a societal concern because they usually have a “steady” boyfriend in addition to other partners.
When former queen Susie (who requested her real name not be published), was a junior in high school when she was pursued for eight months by a driver who would not agree to regular condom use during their sexual activity. At the time, “He was 26. I was 16,” she said.
In the beginning, “[he] usually asked me to come sit next to him in the front [of the cab.] And he used to buy me some gifts and told me not to pay the taxi fee,” she said of the exchange, classified as transactional sex.
Shortly into her “relationship,” she said, “I fell in love because of those things he was doing for me. Those gifts, those free rides and the status.”
“I was feeling better…I was a [special] school girl because he was asking me to sit next to him, other school girls are dating school guys and I’m dating the guy who is driving a taxi.”
Almost 10 years later, Susie uses the word “shame” to describe a lingering feeling that she was left with after the arrangement was over. The young woman was brokenhearted because she loved the driver, who was involved — unbeknownst to her — with two other school-aged girls at the same time.
While Susie was with the driver, she contracted a sexual transmitted infection because condoms were only used at the very beginning of their relationship. Now she is 24 years old and says that most girls who are queens, are typically “quick girls,” who routinely have sex with taxi drivers — typically without using protection, she added, and “routinely HIV positive.”
“Usually if a school girl is dating a taxi driver, its not the first one … If you have dated a taxi driver, you will always date them and you will sleep with them,” she said.
In statistics released in July by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) ahead of the 21st International AIDS Conference in Durban, the disease-related death rate was shown to have doubled since 2000 among people aged 15 to 19.
This makes it crucial to educate drivers on what is causing the spread of HIV/AIDS, as well as empowering young adults — especially women and girls. In sub-Saharan Africa, which accounts for about 70 per cent of people in the world living with HIV, 3 out of every 4 adolescents newly infected by HIV in 2015 were girls.
In a paper “Minibus taxidrivers’ sexual beliefs and practices associated with HIV infection and AIDS in KwaZulu- Natal, South Africa,” researchers Busisiwe Ncama and Gugu Mchunu looked at the ratio of drivers that use protection during sex opposed to those who do not. Overall, “we are worried about sexual practices,” Ncama told Women in the World, while adding that, the sexual behavior of drivers should be a national public health concern.
Fellow researcher Mchunu agrees. Both explained that transmission goes hand in hand with misconceptions on how diseases can be exchanged. “(Drivers are) saying things like they are using immune boosters they are purchasing in the taxi lane, that they believe will treat the virus and make them feel better without even going to the clinic.”