In-depth: Closing the gap: Gender-Based Violence in South Africa

SOUTH AFRICA: Microfinance also buys freedom from abuse

Photo: IRIN
The loans were used to set up small businesses
Burgersfort, 1 February 2007 (PlusNews) - It's not every day you hear good news about HIV/AIDS and the abuse of women, so the findings of a South African study showing a 55 percent drop in domestic violence in the northern province of Limpopo generated a fair amount of hype, with the research hailed as "groundbreaking and exciting".

These are not the words that Agnes Letlapa, 50, would use to describe her life. The shy, unassuming mother of seven sells second-hand clothes, cigarettes and home-made cakes from her modest two-bedroomed house on the outskirts of Burgersfort, a small platinum mining town.

For the past two years, Letlapa has been one of 850 women who participated in the Intervention with Microfinance for AIDS and Gender Equity (IMAGE) study, which combined microcredit with education on gender and HIV, a joint initiative between the Rural AIDS and Development Action Research Programme at South Africa's Wits University, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and the Small Enterprise Foundation (SEF), a local microfinance provider.

Things have changed for the family, and she admitted that for women like her - poor, unemployed and forced to cope with "men hitting us, not sleeping at home and refusing to wear condoms" - the changes have been dramatic.

After two years of involvement in the intervention, the women's levels of economic wellbeing had improved, they were more self-confident, had greater influence in household decisions, and were challenging traditional gender norms. According to the study's findings, their experience of physical and sexual violence in the past year had been reduced by half, compared to a control group of women from villages that had not participated the intervention.

Letlapa can now pay for her youngest daughter's school fees and is renovating her house, perched on a rock-strewn hill overlooking neighbouring Botha's Hoek village; she supports her partner, a builder who used to physically abuse her.

"When he was drunk, he would come back at night and start destroying things in the house, and even what he's built [in the house] so far. When I asked for money, he would refuse because we had no children together," Letlapa told IRIN/PlusNews.

Her new self-confidence led her to report his abuse to the police, who arrested him, and subsequently she obtained a protection order against him. After his release, Letlapa's partner began buying groceries for the house, and eventually stopped abusing her. "It's not like before, but he still swears at me sometimes."

She has also become an informal counsellor, advising women in abusive relationships and educating them about HIV/AIDS. Letlapa proudly unzips a case containing a bright pink vibrator, on which she demonstrates using a condom, and pulls out a sheaf of certificates from the AIDS training courses she has attended.


The women in the IMAGE study - who had never had access to banks or finance - received loans of between R500 (about US$68) and R5,000 (US$682) to set up businesses and become economically active.

At SEF's offices in Limpopo's second largest town, Tzaneen, managing director John de Wit explained that SEF officials had met with traditional authorities to introduce the SEF project, followed by a mapping exercise with communities to identify the poorest women. Loan officers then targeted people considered eligible for loans, and those with successful applications had to form groups of five and meet every fortnight.

According to de Wit, SEF followed the "concept and philosophy" of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, a pioneering microcredit scheme for the poor and, much like the Grameen Bank's results, the repayment rate among SEF's female clients was over 98 percent.

The loans were used to set up small businesses, like food stalls, doing dressmaking, and letting extra rooms to boarders. It was compulsory that the groups participate in the 'Sister for Life' programme of 10 gender and HIV training sessions to help them better manage sexual relationships and challenge negative attitudes in the community.


Sister for Life trainers Alinah Magopane, Rachel Madondo and coordinator Lulu Ndlovu discuss their experiences in the training sessions, including the role of culture, and how it has made women vulnerable to HIV.

The issue was first explored by singing traditional songs of instructions to wives on how they should behave, and discussing these messages. The trainers initially encountered stiff resistance when the women had to talk about usually taboo subjects, such as sexuality and their bodies.

"I was training a group and my mother-in-law was among them. She stood up and was so angry when I started talking about their private parts - they all stood up and started leaving. They came back when the loan officers told them, 'If you don't come back' we won't give you loans'."

Tackling domestic violence was another hurdle: when Magopane was defining various types of abuse, she realised that "I was talking about something they already know, which for them was just normal; it's just the way it is. But now I was labelling it 'abuse'".

The women also had to conduct community mobilisation campaigns, with many choosing to educate others about domestic violence and HIV through marches and dramas performed at local schools.

Burgersfort, in the Greater Tubatse municipality, is one of the fastest growing towns in the country; besides the 15 mines already in the area, 10 more platinum and chrome mines are expected to start operating within the next two years.

Trainer Ndlovu expressed concern about the potential rise in HIV infections, as more people flocked to the town seeking employment and engaged in transactional sex. "If women can have their own income, hopefully they won't see the need get into these resource-exchanging relationships," she said.

She admitted that getting the women to put into practice what they had learned about HIV/AIDS was another problem. "They know the path, but may not necessarily walk it - sometimes it's easier to fall back on old ways, automatically blaming HIV on witchcraft."

Sister for Life training also equipped women with the skills to negotiate safer sex, and some even devised their own methods of overcoming men's resistance. "One woman advised the others to try and get him to agree to using a condom once, and then fake or exaggerate her orgasm, saying afterwards, 'I've never enjoyed myself so much - it must be the condom!'," Madondo said.

The next phase of the IMAGE project will target 150 villages in an area covering more than 2,000 km2, which is set to become one of the largest platinum mining developments in the southern hemisphere. Researchers are also evaluating the sustainability and cost benefits of the IMAGE model.

For more details on the study:

Lead Feature

 "Free Indeed"
(03:07 min)

Links & References
  • Gender Links
  • Sexual Violence Research Initiative
  • People Opposing Women Abuse
  • Violence against Women: Eldis

Broken Bodies Broken Dreams: Violence Against Women Exposed

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