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Tess Vigeland: The buzz around microfinance really caught on last year, when Bangladesh's Grameen Bank and its founder, Muhammad Yunus, won the Nobel Peace Prize.
In microfinance, lenders give money to people who wouldn't be able to get a loan from a large traditional bank. The transactions can involve very small amounts of money, but can make a huge difference in developing countries.
One South African group has added a twist by providing additional training to its entrepreneurs — in the heart of the world's AIDS pandemic. Gretchen Wilson reports.
Gretchen Wilson: In this old hall, two women are role-playing how a wife can ask her husband to use a condom.
This isn't local theater. The rural women in this audience are actually here for short-term loans of up to $1,300. These support their businesses as dressmakers or vegetable sellers. Some are grandmas in Sunday hats. Others are teenagers with babies wrapped on their backs.
They're all part of a program called Intervention with Microfinance for AIDS and Gender Equity. It combines microfinance with these workshops on gender equality. Attendance is mandatory every other week, and there's a roll call.
[Sound of a roll call being read]
Dr. Paul Pronyk: You know, the incentive to come is cash, but they're able to access a public health program that they otherwise wouldn't be exposed to.
That's Dr Paul Pronyk with the University of the Witwatersrand. A recent study found that in three years, this program has not only reduced poverty, it's also dropped the incidence of physical and sexual abuse by 55 percent.
Pronyk: The reason that's important is that gender-based violence is a massive risk factor for HIV in South Africa.
One in every three adults here is already HIV positive. Training coordinator Lulu Ndlovu says one reason is that women accept sexual infidelity.
Lulu Ndlovu: A lot of them thought, "It is expected for a man to cheat on me." To such an extent that if you had a husband, and he doesn't cheat on you, you were like, "What's wrong with him." So when we came with the training, people were saying, "Really? That's not supposed to happen? No wonder it was so uncomfortable!"
Uncomfortable, yes. But trainer Rachel Madondo says many here think women who don't bring income into the family can't say "no" to a husband, even if he has many sexual partners.
Rachel Madondo: So most of the women think that, "Ah, it's my duty." Even if I don't want to have sex, he can beat me and then he can say 'Let's have sex,' then you should never object because he is your husband."
All of this puts these women at greater risk of contracting the virus.
Madondo herself is now HIV positive. But she says the training gave her more self-confidence. And she became economically empowered with her first loan.
Madondo: But since I started working, it started to change, little by little. I realized that, "Oh, so I was in an abusive relationship."
Many women are coming to similar realizations, and say this program has been a major turning point in their lives. They're building household savings for the first time, and some are even sending their children to college.
As the women close today's meeting with a song, Betty Nkele says she's proud to have a financial stake in her household.
Betty Nkele (interpreter): My business has improved, and I'm more aware of myself now. I've got plans. My own plans. So I'm not waiting for my husband to come home with money. I'm building my own future.
It's a future that includes talking to her husband about her feelings and showing him how she wants to be treated.
In Mooihoek, South Africa, I'm Gretchen Wilson for Marketplace.