An innovative attempt to measure the effects of microlending and gender empowerment among poor women in Africa suggests the benefits are tangible but need time to take root.
Grass-roots groups have long argued that gender inequality and lack of financial autonomy encourage physical and sexual violence against women in African households -- and this in turn exposes a woman to HIV if her abusive partner is infected.
Efforts to address the problem are at last getting into higher gear but, until now, there has been little more than anecdotal evidence to see if they actually work.
In a study published online on Thursday by The Lancet, South African researchers explored the benefits of providing small loans and training in HIV and gender issues to women in a very poor, remote rural area.
They picked out eight villages in Limpopo that were matched for size and poverty.
The villages were located on average nine kilometers (5.5 miles) from the nearest main road, only half of the houses had a water tap and adult unemployment ran at more than 50 per cent.
In four of the villages, women were given small loans, starting at less than 40 dollars, to finance a business, such as selling fruit or second-hand clothes or tailoring garments.
They also attended 10 one-hour workshops to provide education about sexuality, HIV, gender roles and partner violence, and training to strengthen communication, confidence and leadership.
The other four villages served as a comparison.
Follow-up reports at the two- and three-year marks offered a mixed picture.
Incidents of domestic violence nearly halved in a key group of monitored women.
In addition, there were encouraging signs of change across all households, including better communication about sex and HIV, and higher self-confidence and more networking among the women. There were also small but visible improvements in wealth and food security.
But there was no change in HIV incidence or in unprotected sexual intercourse.
As has been previously seen in microfinance schemes in poor countries, there was a very high repayment rate of the loans. A total of 290,000 dollars was disbursed for 1,750 loans, and there was repayment in 99.7 per cent of cases.
The research, called Intervention with Microfinance for AIDS and Gender Equality (IMAGE), was led by Paul Pronyk of the University of Witwatersrand.
The authors say they may have been hampered by time, as it took on average 18 months for participants to get the full package of microfinance and training. This left little time before the follow-up assessment had to take place.
"This study provides encouraging evidence that a combined microfinance and training intervention can have health and social benefits, including reducing the levels of violence," the paper says.
It cautions, though: "Indirect effects, if any, on young people's HIV risk over the short term are more limited."