Reportage

Research project during the World Cup gathers data on sex workers and HIV

12 July 2010

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20100712_sexwork_200The research was supported by a telephone helpline service to respond to health and human rights concerns of sex workers during the World Cup.
Credit: UNFPA

As part of the UN South Africa Programme of Support to the FIFA 2010 World Cup, UNFPA and SWEAT (Sex Worker Education & Advocacy Taskforce) partnered with South African researchers to investigate key dimensions of HIV and sex work during the tournament. This rigorous research was supported by a telephone helpline service to respond to health and human rights concerns of sex workers during the World Cup. According to Mr. Eric Harper, Executive Director of SWEAT: “These projects give weight to the rights watch dimension for most-at-risk-populations that is so vital when the largest sporting event in the world occurs.”

Sex work in South Africa became one of the most talked about issues in preparation for the tournament. Newspapers warned of an influx of sex workers to the country to exploit the lucrative potential of the arrival of thousands of soccer fans. As the programme’s lead researcher, Marlise Richter, maintained: “Public health and human rights responses to international sporting events should be based on rigorous, systematic research - not on fear-mongering and sensationalism.” This referred to media reports that over-estimated the number of foreign sex workers headed to the country and the result of confusing issues of trafficking and sex work. The research also addresses the significant data shortages related to sex work and HIV in South Africa in the longer term.

The research assessed sex worker fears, expectations and experiences of the World Cup, gathered information on sex worker mobility, frequency of health care visits and interaction with police. It also tracked the number of clients and potential changes in sex work activity during the World Cup. The tournament presented a strategic opportunity for South Africa to respond to the challenges that the sex industry poses in a rights-based way and provided the momentum for these issues to be taken further in the future. At the same time, conducting research that tracked the changes in the sex work sector during a big, international sporting event is vital to inform future policy and planning for similar events across the world.

Following a right-to-health approach, and in accordance with the UNAIDS Guidance Note on HIV and Sex Work , UNFPA supported SWEAT to provide sexual and reproductive health services, including HIV prevention, to sex workers during the tournament and beyond. Sex workers’ ability to look after their health, more especially their sexual and reproductive health, is inextricably linked to their ability to access human rights in general.

Commenting on the initiative, Dianne Massawe, Project Officer for SWEAT said: “This partnersunhip affords us the opportunity to respond specifically to the sexual and reproductive health aspect through increased outreach and distribution of safer sex tools and information to sex workers. In addition, the telephone helpline provide[d] valuable assistance to sex workers around the human rights abuses they face.”

South Africa is often referred to as the epicentre of the AIDS epidemic, home to the world’s largest number of people living with HIV. Within this epicentre, populations most at risk of HIV infection must be prioritised in prevention strategies. UNFPA supports SWEAT in research that will generate further evidence on the need for comprehensive programmes that promote a human rights-based approach to universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support in the context of adult sex work.

The completed research report is expected by September 2010.