Sex workers routinely face discrimination and extremely high risks of violence, particularly at the hands of the police and clients. In 2004, at least eight incidents of violence were reported per sex worker per year in India, says a report by UN Women. Sex workers in that country are also among those at highest risk of HIV as violence exposes them to lower levels of condom use and higher levels of sexually transmitted infections.
The Ashodaya Samithi initiative in Mysore, Karnataka, is an effective example of a sex worker-led response that works synergistically at multiple levels to provide safe spaces and crisis management and to advocate with various stakeholders. Community ownership and mobilization principles enable sex workers to progressively engage with key actors to tackle structural vulnerabilities and create enabling professional and personal conditions.
Seemingly incongruous initial increases in IPV reported by the Ashodaya study seem to be due to increased willingness to report incidents as well as increased violence as a reaction to sex workers’ growing empowerment. In addition, the sex worker collective has established a self-regulatory board to address trafficking.
Community ownership and mobilization principles have been applied by sex worker communities in other parts of India, such as West Bengal, to confront the buying and selling of girls and women—and tricking them into forced sex work and child prostitution—while at the same time aiming to ensure that women who choose to do sex work are treated with respect.
A widely applicable ‘integrated empowerment framework’ was developed for a study of the Avahan programme, formerly called the Indian AIDS Initiative, in five districts in the southern state of Karnataka. It found that effective community mobilization strategies facilitated empowerment among sex workers and that violence decreased by 84% over five years, including that perpetrated by the police and clients.
Enabling sex workers to identify sources of vulnerability and ways to address them, such as managing client risk behaviours, and enhancing economic autonomy and the ability to access services can transform their risk environment, including the risk of HIV.