Background & objectives: Structural interventions have the capacity to improve the outcomes of HIV/AIDS interventions by changing the social, economic, political or environmental factors that determine risk and vulnerability. Marginalized groups face disproportionate barriers to health, and sex workers are among those at highest risk of HIV in India. Evidence in India and globally has shown that sex workers face violence in many forms ranging from verbal, psychological and emotional abuse to economic extortion, physical and sexual violence and this is directly linked to lower levels of condom use and higher levels of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), the most critical determinants of HIV risk. We present here a case study of an intervention that mobilized sex workers to lead an HIV prevention response that addresses violence in their daily lives.
Methods: This study draws on ethnographic research and project monitoring data from a community-led structural intervention in Mysore, India, implemented by Ashodaya Samithi. Qualitative and quantitative data were used to characterize baseline conditions, community responses and subsequent outcomes related to violence.
Results: In 2004, the incidence of reported violence by sex workers was extremely high (> 8 incidents per sex worker, per year) but decreased by 84 per cent over 5 years. Violence by police and anti-social elements, initially most common, decreased substantially after a safe space was established for sex workers to meet and crisis management and advocacy were initiated with different stakeholders. Violence by clients, decreased after working with lodge owners to improve safety. However, initial increases in intimate partner violence were reported, and may be explained by two factors: (i) increased willingness to report such incidents; and (ii) increased violence as a reaction to sex workers' growing empowerment. Trafficking was addressed through the establishment of a self-regulatory board (SRB). The community's progressive response to violence was enabled by advancing community mobilization, ensuring community ownership of the intervention, and shifting structural vulnerabilities, whereby sex workers increasingly engaged key actors in support of a more enabling environment.
Interpretation & conclusions: Ashodaya's community-led response to violence at multiple levels proved highly synergistic and effective in reducing structural violence.