By: Guest Blogger, Sara Eisenstaedt, Microenterprise Fellow
The field of microfinance has demonstrated itself as an innovative, viable solution to alleviating poverty issues both domestically and abroad, but its additional benefits extend far beyond the realm of economics. Issues relating to business seemingly do not intersect with those concerning health, but recent data is proving that this link deserves further exploration. Microfinance is now being suggested as a new intervention strategy in the fight against HIV/AIDS, and initial research is showing promising results for women’s financial and physical wellbeing.
According to a recent article examining the link between microfinance and HIV/AIDS prevention, Dworkin and Blankenship (2009) suggest that financially disempowered women are at greater risk of being exposed to high-risk sexual situations than women who are economically independent. These situations may include engaging in sex for money or assets, remaining in abusive domestic relationships, or losing the power to negotiate safe sex practices with partners, and any one of these risk factors can increase the likelihood of HIV/AIDS exposure. Microfinance, therefore, may support HIV/AIDS prevention by providing these women the opportunity to access alternative income sources and economic empowerment.
Research in this emerging field is still in its early stages, but JEWEL (Jewelry Education for Women Empowering Their Lives) is one program that has given an initial glimpse into microfinance’s potential power to combat HIV/AIDS. In its pilot study, JEWEL offered a group of female sex workers in Baltimore, Maryland the opportunity to attend six, two-hour classes that incorporated HIV prevention lessons as well as microfinance strategies about how to make, market, and sell jewelry. At the time of initial follow up, researchers found that participants engaged in less sex for drugs or money, and reported a lower average of sex partners per month. In addition, after three months researchers noted that jewelry sale income was associated with a reduced number of participants’ overall sex partners.
Given the positive results of the JEWEL study, it is clear that microfinance may have a very real impact on women’s ability to protect their own physical health. Further research into this emerging field is still needed, but at first glance it appears that the benefits of microfinance are not exclusively limited to business. With this knowledge in mind, it is essential that microfinance organizations like Women’s Initiative continue to be supported and credited with tackling social issues that extend far beyond the realm of poverty.