Gender Based Violence Health HIV and AIDS Women's Health

Micro-financing & HIV education
Living with AIDS # 271

Social conditions such as poverty and gender inequalities play a major role in driving the AIDS epidemic in South Africa. Often, it is women who are at the mercy of such conditions. A unique pilot project in the remote villages of Limpopo and Mpumalanga is using micro-finance to intervene.

KHOPOTSO: The programme has been running over the last four years. It has made remarkable in-roads into what has largely been an inaccessible domain ‘€“ that of the traditions and culture of rural women. The project is called IMAGE, which stands for the Intervention with Micro-finance for AIDS and Gender Equity.

Dr JULIA KIM: It centres on the premise that we need to start looking at broader approaches to HIV prevention’€¦ You find that a lot of the approaches are very bio-medical. They focus primarily on things like vaccines, medications, very technical solutions to the problem. But if you speak to people in South Africa and you look at why the HIV epidemic is taking off in the way that it has, it has much more to do with social conditions ‘€“ poverty for one thing, economic inequalities within the country, gender inequalities.      

KHOPOTSO: Dr Julia Kim, founder member of the IMAGE project. Research shows that women are often too scared to ask their partners practice safe sex with them. In addition, tribal norms in traditional rural communities often re-enforce inequality between men and women. The pioneering IMAGE project is trying to help women to support themselves financially, and thus be less dependent on men. IMAGE has teamed up with the Small Enterprise Foundation (SEF) to help rural women get access to small loans to start businesses.

Dr JULIA KIM: It starts with giving groups of women small amounts of money for income generation projects… In many of these places it’€™s the first chance that women have had to begin earning their own money and to be bringing that into the household. That, in turn, can change their relationships with their husband, the way they are seen by their families and their communities.  

KHOPOTSO: The aim is to empower the poorest women from the villages of Limpopo and Mpumalanga. The loan operation includes a 10-part education programme on gender equality, cultural beliefs, body functioning, sexuality, relationships, domestic violence and HIV prevention. Lulu Ndhlovu grew up in the local village of Driekop, in Limpopo. She’€™s a facilitator in the programme.

LULU NDHLOVU: We just want women to start supporting each other in terms of gender violence’€¦ That is why we keep on bringing up the issue of rape because it’€™s the thing now and everybody keeps on saying it’€™s a problem. But you ask them: ‘€œWhat happens to a girl who wears short skirts’€™’€™? And they say ‘€œAag, she gets raped’€.                

What’€™s the difference between her and the older woman who wears a long dress who’€™ll also be raped? That person who gets raped is a woman. And if she can be raped, it means that you can also be raped. So, that is what we’€™re trying to bring up that it’€™s more important to support what she is – which is a woman.


Sfx’€¦ Women singing’€¦

Normally, when we do the sessions everybody’€™s excited. They talk about culture. They talk about yeah, the man is a bull. He has to do a, b and c. But once we get to session 7 you won’€™t get this excitement. They’€™ll all be quiet because then, we’€™re talking about them, we are talking about their daughters, the people that they love. All of a sudden it’€™s not funny anymore. And they’€™ve seen people who are dying of AIDS and it’€™s not a pretty sight. And the thought of them actually contributing to that person having to go through that because of the gender issues and culture and everything else – it’€™s not funny anymore.        

KHOPOTSO: The women meet every two weeks for a one-hour session and discussion. This is followed by the loan repayment meeting where the books are balanced and where further financing is extended as needed. This piggy-bagging of agendas initially met with resistance from the women. But in the four years that the IMAGE project has been running there has been a change of attitude, as one woman, Sophia, explains.


KHOPOTSO: Sophia says that when this started we thought these people were insulting us. We found it strange they could talk about sex openly. But after a while we realised that they are helping. Now I know that even I, as a married woman, am at risk of contracting HIV.

KHOPOTSO: With the micro-loan she secured from joining the programme, Sophia joined up with a group of other women and they have set up a thriving second-hand clothing business. Dr Kim believes that the economic empowerment of rural women such as Sophia, will contribute to them having improved relations with their partners.      

Dr JULIA KIM: By combining this micro-finance, this income generation, this empowerment strategy with gender and HIV training we’€™re hoping to make an impact on women’€™s ability to negotiate for safer sex. We’€™re also hoping that it will translate into better communications in the household.                

KHOPOTSO: The challenges may seem enormous. The project is innovative, yet ambitious. But the changes, although tiny, are already beginning to show as the women slowly start to become equals in their relationships.

About the author

Khopotso Bodibe