Groundbreaking research on sex worker safety and security receives award at International AIDS Conference

21 Jul 2014

imageA painting by a Myanmar sex worker organisation depicts violence in healthcare settings. UNDP Photo

Melbourne, Australia -- An unprecedented research project, Sex Work and Violence: Understanding Factors for Safety and Protection, received the first Robert Carr Research Award at the 20th International AIDS Conference, in Melbourne, Australia. The award was established in honor of Dr. Robert Carr, who advocated for human rights as central to the response to the HIV epidemic.

This collaborative research brings together sex worker communities, sex work rights advocates, the United Nations, researchers and governments from Indonesia, Myanmar, Nepal and Sri Lanka. The research is aimed at finding solutions to stopping violence against sex workers as an important component in the response to HIV. While the actual findings will be released later this year, the award recognizes the unique research process used to reach the findings.

“What makes this research different is the involvement of so many different groups, including governments, sex workers and law enforcement,” says Marta Vallejo, UNDP Policy Specialist, HIV, Health and Inclusive Local Governance. “This collaboration means that the door is now open for continued work to find solutions to eliminating violence against marginalized and excluded groups,” says Ms. Vallejo, who was part of a multi-agency team to manage the research process.

The project is overseen by a regional steering committee that included the Centre for Advocacy on Stigma and Marginalisation , the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), UN Population Fund (UNFPA), the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), and Partners for Prevention, which is a joint UN initiative working on gender-based violence.

award photo
Kay Thi (L) and Marta Vallejo Mestres with the Robert Carr Award at the International Aids Conference 2014 in Melbourne, Australia.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) were instrumental in designing and funding the research at the regional and national levels. Their expertise together with Partners for Prevention and UNAIDS helps ensure that the quality of the final research is sound and meets international standards. 

“The project truly honors Robert’s vision of bringing researchers, activists and individuals directly affected by the HIV epidemic together to advance our knowledge of the impact of human rights-based policies and practices,” said Joe Amon, of Human Rights Watch.

At country level, national working groups were set up to bring together government, law enforcement and sex work leaders to oversee the national studies. Various UN agencies have played a convening role with the groups to oversee the national research.

Now that the country reports and their findings are nearly completed, the convening and facilitation role of the UN will become even more critical. Led by a local sex work organization who were trained to gather the data, and supported by UN country teams, the research was done in a participatory way that included researchers sharing the initial analysis with the communities. The aim is to ensure that their experiences are authentically reflected in the interpretation of the data.

The selection committee for the award, representing the Johns Hopkins Center for Public Health and Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, the International AIDS Society, and the International Council of AIDS Service Organizations, as well as two experts involved in community-academia research collaborations, based their decision on the innovation of the research project and the high and diverse number of stakeholders involved in the process.

“The committee believes that the research project has the potential to achieve a great impact by influencing policies and practices in the field and guide evidence-based programs and influence policies in the field of HIV to guide a human rights-based response. It paves the way as a model for similar research projects,” says Mary Ann Torres, Executive Director the International Council of AIDS Service Organizations.

The award is a joint initiative by the International Council of AIDS Service Organizations (ICASO), the International AIDS Society (IAS), Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Johns Hopkins Center for Public Health and Human Rights (CPHHR).

Our Work with HIV, Health and Development

The countries of the Asia Pacific region are home to serious HIV epidemics that pose special challenges to societal and human development. In global terms, the region accounts for the second highest number of world-wide AIDS-related deaths, the second highest number of new infections, and the second highest number of people living with HIV (PLHIV) (almost 5 million).


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