Regular cash payments can help delay the spread of HIV/Aids by preventing poor girls being forced into relations with older and richer men, according to new research.
The findings released yesterday at the International Aids Conference in Vienna, offer hope in making headway against the disease that has already killed millions. It is especially significant because women have borne the brunt of the Aids epidemic.
Poverty is an underlying factor in the spread of HIV/Aids in the world’s poorest countries. Often girls and young women are forced into having sexual relations because of their families' extreme poverty.
In the study, for the World Bank, researchers found that they could put off sexual activity in girls and young women by boosting their family’s income with small amounts of money, as little as a few pounds a month. That delay led to a 60 per cent fall in HIV infections. And researchers hope that putting off sex for longer will have a long-term effect on girls and young women’s overall health.
One of the studies followed about 3,800 girls between 13 and 22 in Malawi who were given less than a pound a month for themselves and between £2 and £5 a month for their families on condition that they went to school. After 18 months, the researchers reported, 1.2per cent of the girls who received money had caught HIV, compared with three per cent of those who got no money.
They “show the potential for using cash payments to prevent people, especially women and girls, from engaging in unsafe sex while also ensuring that they stay in school and get the full benefits of an education,” said David Wilson, the director of the bank's global HIV/Aids programme.
The World Bank says it is likely that the cash handouts led to a drop in ‘transactional sex’. At the start of the study, a quarter of sexually active girls said they started relationships because they needed or wanted money.
"Programs like these could become an important missing part of effective HIV prevention strategies," said Berk Ozler, a senior economist with the World Bank's Development Research Group, who carried out the study with researchers from George Washington University and the University of California.
Mr Ozler told the Associated Press news service that the findings suggest that "empowering girls financially can lead to reduced risk --not just by reducing their sexual activity or practicing safer sex, but also by enabling them to choose partners who are less likely to be infected with HIV in the first place."