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Our impact, their voice

Educated, empowered, inspired: HIV risk reduced

A novel programme helped HIV vulnerable women in southern Africa build business to improve their lives and the wellbeing of their families.

Feature | 16 May 2016
LILONGWE, Malawi (ILO News) – When talking about life prior to starting her business, Ivy Njati chooses her words with care: “It was difficult to get money, I had nothing to do, and because I needed money I had to do all sorts of bad things... you can imagine.”

Before joining the “Tung arts” youth association of Mzuzu in 2012, Ivy, 24, was like many young unmarried women in Malawi’s third largest city: unemployed, with few prospects of meaningful work and struggling to find money to survive. Her dream of opening her own shop was lost in the daily hustle of city life.

Her lifestyle was also making her particularly vulnerable to HIV infection. With few other options she, like many tens of thousands of women across Southern Africa, had to resort to sex work for additional income, exposing herself to an elevated risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

A new approach

It was to support Ivy, and others like her, that an innovative collaboration between the International Labour Organization and the Swedish Government began in 2011 through the Corridor Economic Empowerment Project (CEEP).

Unlike traditional HIV and AIDS awareness programmes, this project aimed to harness economic empowerment to enhance the quality of people’s lives and, at the same time, improve their ability to prevent HIV transmission, access health services or cope with the existing HIV infection.

“The economic empowerment approach addresses the root causes of vulnerability to HIV and builds people’s resilience to cope with the impact of HIV. By assisting over 11,000 beneficiaries with training and helping them run their businesses, the ILO’s programme transformed over 88,000 lives in six African countries from 2011 to 2015,” says Alice Ouedraogo, Chief, HIV/AIDS and the World of Work, ILOAIDS, Geneva.

When launched in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Zambia, Mozambique and Malawi, the CEEP programme originally concentrated on people living and working in transport corridors. Statistics show the challenge for the people of these nations, especially women. According to the World Bank, nearly 43 per cent of people live in extreme poverty (less than US$ 1.90 per day). The ILO data shows that only 13.7 per cent of the working age population has paid employment and the vulnerable employment rate for women is above 84 per cent.

“We have seen from the programme that economic and social advancement results in people changing their lives in a number of positive ways: They spend more on health, they spend more on education for their children and they spend more on nutrition,” explains Margherita Licata, HIV Technical Specialist at ILOAIDS.

Reaching the community

In 2012, the CEEP programme expanded to communities neighbouring the transport corridors, particularly to cover vulnerable women and girls.

Through national committees made up of workers, employers and the ministries of labour, the programme began to select women’s groups as a way to help communities. Beginning with HIV awareness training and using the ILO tools “Start and Improve Your Business” and the more targeted “GET Ahead for Women in Enterprise Training Package” individuals and groups began to use this training to improve their economic status and physical well-being.

In Mzuzu, Ivy Njati was able to open a small shop selling clothes. She now has ambitions for expansion: “My clothes are for everybody… I get them from Tanzania currently but I am planning to go and source more clothes from the South of Malawi, once I get some big orders.”

Some of the women, such as Maggie Nyama, from the Dowa district in central Malawi, showed a natural flair for business. A mother of four, Maggie found life difficult after her husband died and survived on the proceeds of a small business selling rice and sweet potatoes. Through a local women’s group, she received HIV awareness as well as business training and loan through the CEEP programme.

“Through the loan I got, I expanded my business, and from the profits I have managed to build three houses, opened two restaurants and have been able to bring piped water to my compound. I am now a land lady… I am able to send my children to school, I have trained my girls to be part of my business and they are running our restaurants.”

While Maggie’s success has not been replicated by all women who pass through the programme it does demonstrate an important benefit of the empowerment strategy.

Patrick Makondesa, national coordinator of the programme, adds: “In Malawi we have seen that for women like Maggie and Ivy, as their income grows they have more money to pay for HIV treatment, if they need it. They enjoy better health and can improve the lives of their families. It is a very sustainable way to address health and HIV problems in my country.”

Taking ownership

A key element to the programme is the insistence that those women who need financial assistance to begin their businesses receive loans, typically around 8,000 USD per group. Margherita Licata explains the reasoning behind arranging loans through groups: “… Facilitating loans through groups develops a sort of shared accountability. People are conscious of the fact that the loans need to be repaid. We were happy to note that the loan repayment rate was 75 per cent.”

Indeed, for Ivy Njati repaying her debt was significant: “… The business is mine, 100 per cent!” she says. However, not all the dividends from the programme are financial. “I have learned that nothing is impossible,” Ivy added, "… I am so happy and proud.”

Maggie Nyama is also mindful of the impact on more than her businesses’ bottom line, “One can change one’s life for the better through hard work, and become independent… This programme has transformed my life completely.”

Ivy Njati and Maggie Nyama, from Malawi, will be sharing their experiences at a 17 May ILO event at the Annual Women Deliver Conference to be held in Copenhagen 16-19 May, 2016.

Also at the event, a May 19 panel involving the ILO will discuss the issue “Technical and vocational education: What works for young women?”