As part of the study, researchers interviewed 3 515 young people between the ages of ten and 18 years in two urban and two rural health districts in the Western Cape and Mpumalanga, and followed them up a year later.

The research found that, while around 15 percent of teenagers were engaging in a risky sexual behaviour such as unprotected sex, multiple partners or sex while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, girls from families that received government’s R300 child support grant were less likely to have sex with older men, or “sugar daddies.”

The study also found that girls who said they slept with older men were also more likely to report having sex in exchange for money, school fees or transport.

These girls were also more likely to report having multiple partners, unprotected sex and having sex while drunk or high, according the research conducted by Oxford University in partnership with the universities of the Witwatersrand and KwaZulu-Natal.

“Child support grants do not make teenagers more sensible when it comes to safer sex,” said Mark Orkin, professor with the University of the Witwatersrand’s School of Public and Development Management and study co-author. “What they can do is promote enough financial security for girls that they do not have to choose their sexual partners through economic necessity.”

By allowing women to avoid relationships based on economic need with older men, South Africa’s child grant may be preventing new HIV infections, according to the study’s lead author Dr Lucie Cluver from the UK’s Oxford University.

“The study’s main message is very clear,” she said. “If we give child support grants or other cash transfers to families then we can reduce HIV risk among girls in those families.”

Sex between younger women and older men is one of the main drivers of HIV in South Africa, where HIV prevalence among girls between the ages of 15 and 19 is five times higher than that among their male peers, according to the latest Human Sciences Research Council household survey.

Cluver added the study, published in the international medical journal The Lancet Global Health, is a powerful reminder of young women’s vulnerability.

“There have been loads of stories in the media about sugar daddies and about how girls are choosing to do this…that it’s a kind of life style choice,” she told Health-e. “This data really suggests the opposite because it says that even if you give a relatively tiny amount of money to the family to put them just above the level of survival, then girls are choosing not to have sugar daddies.”

The study comes on the heels of a 2012 joint assessment of the child grant by government and the United Nations Children’s Fund that found that children receiving the grant were more likely have better early nutrition, complete more years of schooling and score higher in maths.

“We should be very proud of our child and foster child care support grants,” Cluver said. “They cost a lot of money but this study is really saying that the money is worth it when you consider what we are protecting teenagers and young people against.”

She added that with the child grant’s proven benefits, more needs to be done to reach the roughly 30 percent of children who need, but are not receiving the grant. – Health-e News Service.