The South African government expressed concern this week after a news report highlighted the story of a young woman who admitted she was thinking of contracting the HI virus to access a disability grant.
The young woman, Thato, said she had ten 'boyfriends' with whom she slept for money. She was supporting two nieces, her own child and a grandmother suffering from diabetes on the money she made, by being what she described as a "prostitute in disguise".
Thato told independent film maker Ben Cashdan she would not mind contracting HIV so that she could access the disability grant. In his experience, Cashdan said, Thato's situation was not unusual.
The national spokesman for the department of social development, Vulelo Musi, expressed his shock and sadness, and acknowledged that the government had substantial work to do. "This is an incredibly serious matter, with far-reaching social and economic consequences," Musi told IRIN.
"We believe this is a reflection of the sheer desperation of people living in poverty, coupled with the moral degradation of our society. We have to find better ways of communicating the social grant policy, so that people do not resort to such dangerous routes to survive."
Cashdan commented: "Thato is well spoken and one gets the impression that she is not as desperate as others living in Soweto, yet she considers contracting HIV to access the disability grant. What I understood was that Thato lives on the outskirts of this very wealthy city, and she sees sleeping with these men and accessing the grant as a route out of poverty."
A disability grant of R740 per month (US $108) is available to people with CD4 cell counts below 200. The department of social development also encouraged people to explore income-generating projects Musi added.
He said he had explained to Thato how the various grants work. "Because she cares for her own child under the age of eleven, she qualifies for the child support grant. Taking care of two children that are not hers means she can access the foster care grant, and the grandmother should be receiving a pension."
Selwin Jehoma, chief director of systems and administration for grants at the department of social development, said the policy unit had requested research to be undertaken, which was currently underway, to establish how grants improved quality of life, and discover whether they could be acting as "perverse incentives".
"This research evolved out of a concern that young girls were falling pregnant to access the child support grant," said Jehoma. "Obviously there are a number of factors within the system that have to be extensively researched, to determine how to improve the grant system and prevent such perverse incentives."
Musi said the research would inform changes in the system, and government departments should run programmes together.
"The department of social development, the department of health and the department of education have to work together and with local government, churches, NGOs and CBOs (community based organisations) if we're going to eliminate such misconceptions and improve the system for all citizens," said Musi.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions