Efforts to understand commercial and transactional sex – involve the community and use both quantitative and qualitative methods

Editor’s notes: As the overall number of new HIV infections falls, it is likely that an increasingly large proportion of infections will occur in key populations and among those left behind by HIV services.  In order to plan, deliver, monitor and evaluate services for specific populations, we need to develop the best estimates possible of the number of people in each population.  Sharifi and colleagues provide an excellent introduction to some of the methods that have been tried to estimate population size of key populations.  Each of the three methods that the authors used to estimate the number of female sex-workers living in urban areas of Iran has strengths and weaknesses.  Used together the methods may allow some triangulation of estimates.  The authors found that the ‘wisdom of the crowds’, in which sex-workers are asked to provide their own best estimates tended to give the highest figures.  The possibility is that where sex work is highly stigmatized and criminalized (as it is in Iran) women may tend to subconsciously exaggerate the numbers in order to normalize their position in society.  Multiplier methods which use “capture-recapture” approaches gave the lowest estimates, which may be due to the same sample of women being seen in both the two approaches used to estimate numbers.  For instance, if some women are more reluctant to be identified, they may be missed both in the distribution of “tags” or gifts and then again in the “re-capture” survey.  The total estimate is then calculated by multiplying the inverse of the proportion of how many women in the survey had received the “tags”.  So, this may produce an underestimate if the same women are missed in both rounds of the research.  Finally, the network methods are used during national surveys and ask respondents to identify how many of their network are sex workers.  Supposedly this avoids the stigma of identifying oneself as a sex worker to the interviewer.  The authors best estimate is that there are more than 200 000 female sex workers in urban settings in Iran, which is considerably higher than the previous estimates.  However, the paper’s key strength is the discussion of the different approaches and how we can improve our understanding of this valuable metric.

The Iranian researchers used a standard definition of sex work, based on having exchanged sex (vaginal, anal, or oral) for money, goods, or favours with at least one male partner in the past 12 months.  However, it is clear that this definition overlaps with many sexual relationships that neither partner would classify as sex work.  Raganathan and colleagues present a fascinating qualitative study of transactional sex and sexual agency among young women in rural South Africa.  Of course, it is not surprising that sex is embedded within a complex framework of romantic relationships that are modified by the degree to which young women values herself and her own agency.  Financial independence is a key to safer relationships, but gifts and money also enhance the status of young women and indicate commitment from their male partner.  It is one thing to count and label sexual transactions, but it is another to understand them and work with young people to enhance their ability to avoid HIV infection.

 

Population size estimation of female sex workers in Iran: synthesis of methods and results

Sharifi H, Karamouzian M, Baneshi MR, Shokoohi M, Haghdoost A, McFarland W, Mirzazadeh A. PLoS One. 2017 Aug 10;12(8):e0182755. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0182755. eCollection 2017.

Introduction: Estimating the number of key populations at risk of HIV is essential for planning, monitoring, and evaluating prevention, care, and treatment programmes. We conducted this study to estimate the number of female sex workers (FSW) in major cities of Iran.

Methods: We used three population size estimation methods (i.e., wisdom of the crowds, multiplier method, and network scale-up) to calculate the number of FSW in 13 cities in Iran. The wisdom of the crowds and multiplier methods were integrated into a nationwide bio-behavioural surveillance survey in 2015, and the network scale-up method was included in a national survey of the general population in 2014. The median of the three methods was used to calculate the proportion of the adult female population who practice sex work in the 13 cities. These figures were then extrapolated to provide a national population size estimation of FSW across urban areas.

Results: The population size of FSW was 91 500 (95% Uncertainty Intervals [UIs] 61 400-117 700), corresponding to 1.43% (95% UIs 0.96-1.84) of the adult (i.e., 15-49 years-old) female population living in these 13 cities. The projected numbers of FSW for all 31 provincial capital cities were 130 800 (95% UIs 87 800-168 200) and 228 700 (95% UIs 153 500-294 300) for all urban settings in Iran.

Conclusions: Using methods of comparable rigor, our study provided a data-driven national estimate of the population size of FSW in urban areas of Iran. Our findings provide vital information for enhancing HIV programme planning and lay a foundation for assessing the impact of harm reduction efforts within this marginalized population.

Abstract Full-text [free] access

Young women's perceptions of transactional sex and sexual agency: a qualitative study in the context of rural South Africa

Ranganathan M, MacPhail C, Pettifor A, Kahn K, Khoza N, Twine R, Watts C, Heise L.BMC Public Health. 2017 Aug 22;17(1):666. doi: 10.1186/s12889-017-4636-6

Background: Evidence shows that HIV prevalence among young women in sub-Saharan Africa increases almost five-fold between ages 15 and 24, with almost a quarter of young women infected by their early-to mid-20s. Transactional sex or material exchange for sex is a relationship dynamic that has been shown to have an association with HIV infection.

Methods: Using five focus group discussions and 19 in-depth interviews with young women enrolled in the HPTN 068 conditional cash transfer trial (2011-2015), this qualitative study explores young women's perceptions of transactional sex within the structural and cultural context of rural South Africa. The analysis also considers the degree to which young women perceive themselves as active agents in such relationships and whether they recognise a link between transactional sex and HIV risk.

Results: Young women believe that securing their own financial resources will ultimately improve their bargaining position in their sexual relationships, and open doors to a more financially independent future. Findings suggest there is a nuanced relationship between sex, love and gifts: money has symbolic meaning, and money transfers, when framed as gifts, indicates a young woman's value and commitment from the man. This illustrates the complexity of transactional sex; the way it is positioned in the HIV literature ignores that "exchanges" serve as fulcrums around which romantic relationships are organised. Finally, young women express agency in their choice of partner, but their agency weakens once they are in a relationship characterised by exchange, which may undermine their ability to translate perceived agency into STI and HIV risk reduction efforts.

Conclusions: This research underscores the need to recognise that transactional sex is embedded in adolescent romantic relationships, but that certain aspects make young women particularly vulnerable to HIV. This is especially true in situations of restricted choice and circumscribed employment opportunities. HIV prevention educational programmes could be coupled with income generation trainings, in order to leverage youth resilience and protective skills within the confines of difficult economic and social circumstances. This would provide young women with the knowledge and means to more successfully navigate safer sexual relationships.

Abstract  Full-text [free] access

Africa, Asia
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