Yesterday I shared some media coverage of international sex worker rights day events in Namibia, as well as reports of some work I was involved in last year that were launched on the same day.
I want to draw attention to one of the reports in particular. Because there has been very little research on sex work in Namibia, and because most of the programmes designed to support sex workers are framed around a very narrow HIV focus (information, condoms, cajoling or even coercing people to get tested and have STI check ups; and no attention to issues like violence, discrimination and insecurity), UNFPA and UNAIDS wanted to do a bit of qualitative research to look in more detail at what was going on.
Although I’m a big fan of epidemiological research (quantitative and qualitative), and I use the results of research all the time, it seemed in this context that it wasn’t particularly feasible (given the resources available) or appropriate to see this as a classic research project, with publication in a peer-reviewed journal or changing national policies as the ultimate goal. What seemed more important, given that a major new HIV programme aimed at sex workers was about to be launched, was to document some of the specific situations in the towns that the programme was going to target, to help influence the sorts of things that get addressed, and to identify and point out any gaps in the programme. Moreover, there are quite a few sex workers in Namibia who are very involved in community work, whether in relation to HIV or more broadly, and we wanted to help them get even more involved.
So we decided to provide some introductory training on one qualitative method – focus group discussions – and got them to think through what sorts of issues their colleagues might want to discuss. We used those suggestions to develop a guide, and sent them out to conduct their own research.
The report describes the results in detail. It also describes the limitations, of which there are many. Although I remain adamant that the purpose of this activity was never to extract data that will tell the whole story and represent the realities of sex workers throughout Namibia, some common themes come out of each of the five towns. But there are also differences. It’s the differences that interest me. I wanted to give people an opportunity to discuss and think about what was going on in their own towns, and what, practically, immediately, might be done to fix some of the problems in each town. And to an extent, I think that’s what we got. It’s not generalisable; in fact the results from each town are probably very biased. We know, for instance, that in most of the towns, we failed to talk to any male or transgender sex workers. But if we recognise the biases and their relevance to each town, but use the information to get positive change in each town, then that’s OK.
We’ve also got a team with a new set of skills, who can do the same thing again, or can replicate it in other towns, or – why not – help other marginalised groups like men who have sex with men, migrants, or people living in slums do the same thing.
Maybe “research” is the wrong term to describe using research techniques in creative ways. This participatory approach isn’t new to community development work: far from it. It isn’t new to public health researchers either. Practitioners have been advocating it for decades. But it remains a marginal rather than a maintream practice. So that’s why I’m making it a big deal.
Update: The Namibian Sun carried a feature describing the assessments on 7th March 2012. The article is a good reflection of the findings, although some of the stock sex worker library pictures they’ve used as illustrations are a little unfortunate.