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Empowering Women Reduces Domestic Violence and AIDS Risk

A new trial shows empowering African women can help to sharply reduce domestic violence, a key factor in HIV transmission.

Poverty, violence and HIV. They’re called the triple threat to development. But a new groundbreaking study – called IMAGE - says combining economic help with gender and HIV education has changed the lives of thousands of women.

IMAGE stands for Intervention with Microfinance for AIDS and Gender Equity. The three-year study involved 850 women and 4,000 young people from the rural Sekhukuneland District of South Africa’s Limpopo Province. It was a joint effort involving the University of Witswatersrand, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the Small Enterprise Foundation. The findings appeared in a recent edition of The Lancet medical journal.

Professor Charlotte Watts at the London school is one of the project organizers.

“We were very interested in trying to actually see if we could actually intervene to try and change levels of violence. And there’s been a lot of discussion about how gender and economic inequality are driving forces behind violence and HIV,” she says.

Watts says when the project started, the participating women had only one objective.

“They initially came for the money. It’s a very poor community. Lots of women had certainly begged for food. They’re really motivated to try and improve their situation financially. But then what they said was that over time they appreciated much more or increasingly the value of the health education and the gender training they were receiving as well,” she says.

The women in the trial would meet regularly to discuss their microfinance loans, learn business skills and set up their own small businesses.

Watts says, “What we added to that was a training package we called Sisters for Life that really took women through issues around gender, starting off talking about traditional songs. Discussing what does that mean, what do those songs say about men and women’s roles? How do women’s days compare with men’s days? And how much do women work?”

The women would then take their concerns to the village elders to consider.

When the study was done, Professor Watts says there was a remarkable difference in the lives of the women in the study and those who were not.

“We had four villages where the intervention was implemented and then four comparable interventions where intervention wasn’t implemented until the end of our study. So what we saw was violence that women reported experiencing in the past year was reduced by 55 percent,” she says.

While the reasons for the dramatic drop in domestic violence are still being studied, Watts says women had attained greater status in the household and were more respected. She says family disputes were more likely to be settled through discussion and not by violence. What’s more, some of the IMAGE women even intervened in domestic violence taking place among women not enrolled in the trial.