Researchers Establish Microloan Program For Sex Workers

Researchers within the Division of Global Public Health and the Center on Gender Equity and Health at the UCSD School of Medicine have launched a four-year experimental mobilization study called Economic and Social Empowerment To Increase Upwards Mobility Among Women that allocates microfinance loans and provides entrepreneurial training to female sex workers in Tijuana, Mexico.

ESTIMA is a collaborative effort between UCSD researchers and the San Diego groups Women’s Empowerment International and Via International that aims to decrease the risks of HIV contraction and gender-based violence by loaning women in the Mexican sex-trade industry small amounts of money.

According to the study’s primary investigator Elizabeth Reed, women in the sex trade industry often find themselves in risky and dangerous situations due to their financial instabilities.

“We know that economic vulnerability underlies women’s involvement in sex work in the first place, but it also increases women’s risk for HIV because it creates a greater sense of urgency in their work, for example, by decreasing the negotiating power they have with clients,” Reed told the UCSD Guardian. “In our recent work, we have found that women who have a poor financial situation are more likely to report inconsistent condom use with clients, to test positive for an sexually transmitted infection and to report recent experiences of violence.”

Funded by the National Institutes of Health, the first phase of ESTIMA involves randomly selecting a group of 120 independent female sex workers over the age of 18 who do not have histories of substance abuse and randomly dividing the pool into a control group and an experimental group. 

Sixty of these women will receive initial loans of $200 and have the opportunity to receive up to $1,000 after repaying the principal amount.

ESTIMA received a government-issued grant of $180,000 from the National Institute of Mental Health. 

Public Affairs Specialist Setareh Kamali expressed to the Guardian that NIMH views gender inequality as an issue of global importance and fully supports Reed’s efforts to reduce gender-based violence both domestically and internationally.

“Gender inequality plays a large role in HIV acquisition for women within the U.S. and around the world, and interventions to address this gender inequality are greatly needed. Violence against women is linked to increased risk of HIV infection,” Kamali said. “Therefore, strategies are needed to help reduce gender-based violence and HIV risk among vulnerable women. This intervention provides vulnerable women with the skills they need to improve their economic standing and decrease their chances of becoming HIV-positive.”

Women’s Empowerment International provided $54,000 of additional funding that will go toward the microfinance loans. WE has funded over 22,000 business loans around the world andhas helped over 200 impoverished San Diego women start their own businesses. 

Co-founder Winifred Cox described WE’s role in the mobilization project and emphasized that the loans the organization is providing to ESTIMA are not simply monetary handouts but are a way of empowering women to change their lives.

“WE works with women who don’t want charity; they want an opportunity to begin to work their way out of poverty. The goal is to bring much needed additional income into the homes of poor women,” Cox explained to the Guardian. “In Tijuana, poverty contributes to a woman’s involvement in the sex trade and heightens her sexual and drug-related HIV risks. The focus of WE is poverty reduction, so our partnership is with Via International, which will help women start businesses with the loans WE funds. UC San Diego will determine whether microfinance lessens gender-based violence and HIV risk among those loan clients.”

Reed, who is also an assistant professor in the division of global public health in the department of medicine, added that she hopes the results of this phase of ESTIMA will be successful enough that the program can be expanded to analyze the long-term benefits of providing female sex workers with financial assistance.

“While this initial pilot of the program is small and will not likely have large-scale impact on the sex trade industry, there could be some small changes that improve the conditions in which women work,” Reed explained. “Our goal is to promote collectivity and unity among women participating in ESTIMA to organize and work together to address problematic conditions within their work but also to best support each other as they initiate new businesses. We expect that long-term impact of the program may include improvements in women’s financial stability and independence, their sexual and reproducti ve health, as well as benefits on their children, [such as] increased school enrollment.”

Reed said that Via International will be in charge of helping women implement the loans and complete the repayment process. 

Representatives from Via International did not respond to the Guardian in time for publication.