A microfinance program for women working in sex work: Does it impact women’s experiences of violence?

December 10th is Human Rights Day. To mark the occasion we invited the authors of a recently published article in BMC International Health and Human Rights, to tell us about their research.

Our recently published article in BMC International Health and Human Rights discusses the impact of a microfinance intervention on experiences of violence against women working in sex work. Women working in sex work are vulnerable to violence from multiple perpetrators –including their own intimate partners, customers, law enforcement, and pimps. Experiencing violence can lead to a range of detrimental health and mental health outcomes, including HIV/STI exposure, substance use, physical injuries, unwanted pregnancies, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, suicidal thoughts, and homicide.

Feliciano Guimarães
Feliciano Guimarães

Researchers and practitioners have looked to microfinance programs as one approach to promote economic security and reduce sexual risk behavior of women working in sex work. However, concern exists about the impact of microfinance participation on women’s risk for violence. Some research studies have found that participating in microfinance programs heightens women’s risk for violence, while others have found that microfinance participation protects women from violence. The impact of microfinance participation on women’s experiences of violence appears to vary per the cultural context. Most of these prior studies focus on violence from intimate partners, but not have looked at the effect on violence from customers among women in sex work.

In our study, we implemented an HIV/STI risk reduction training with women working in sex work. With approximately half of these women (selected at random), we also provided a microsavings program. Microsavings refers to a branch of microfinance which focuses on helping low-income persons build savings for future use. We used a microsavings model instead of a microcredit (i.e. loan-based) model because we did not want to burden women with high loan repayment interest rates or foster over-reliance upon debt.


We tested the impact of participating in microsavings on women’s experiences of violence from their customers. When we compared the two groups (i.e. women who participated in only the HIV/STI training vs. women who participated in both the HIV/STI training and microsavings), we found that over time women in both groups experienced less violence from their customers. Before the program, 44% reported experiencing recent violence from their customers, compared to 12% of women 6 months after the program finished. However, participating in the microsavings program did not significantly impact women’s risk of paying partner violence even though this intervention was effective in transferring women’s income from sex work to other sources.

What can we learn from this study? One explanation for the reductions in violence in both groups is that women may have learned ways to protect themselves from violence from customers in the HIV/STI risk reduction training. Alternatively, it is possible that the provision of social support from peers and program staff could have contributed to this reduction in violence, as many women reported minimal support from social services and high levels of stigma prior to joining our program. The study demonstrates that it is possible to engage a vulnerable group of women in a microsavings intervention without increasing reported experiences of violence from customers.  With proper planning, it is possible to implement microfinance interventions with women in sex work without placing them at greater risk for experiencing violence. While more work remains, this study offers a critical step in understanding how to implement microfinance interventions while prioritizing women’s safety.

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