Examining the complex role of social, environmental and structural factors as barriers and facilitators for HIV risk and prevention among substance-using women in survival sex work.

Women engaged in survival sex work in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES) face multiple vulnerabilities that directly enhance their risk of HIV transmission, including entrenched poverty, homelessness, repeated episodes of violence and assault, substance abuse, and social marginalization. In addition, the illegal, clandestine and largely unregulated nature of sex trade work in Canadian cities increasingly pushes street-entrenched women to the outskirts of society, limiting their means to protect themselves and access to supportive health services. Despite increasing evidence of gender differentials in new HIV infections facing women – particularly youth and women of Aboriginal ancestry – and extensive harm reduction and public health efforts focusing on illicit drug use in this community, little information exists about the complex social, environmental and structural factors that facilitate prevention, harm reduction practices, and access to care. Kate Shannon’s research will use participatory-action research methodologies to explore the social and environmental barriers and facilitators to HIV prevention among survival sex workers. While several individual factors have been shown to elevate HIV and STI (sexually transmitted infection) risk among female substance users in this setting, far less attention has been paid to the role of social and structural violence and power relations in facilitating HIV risk through both sexual and drug use pathways. Using social mapping, focus group discussions and interview-questionnaires, Kate’s research will aim to demonstrate the social and environmental factors that mitigate the HIV risk environment of survival sex workers, and in particular, the role of violence and power relations in the negotiation of HIV prevention behaviours among drug-addicted women and their intimate and working partners This research will provide valuable information about a population that has remained largely on the periphery of public health and harm reduction strategies and services. It is anticipated that the research will also foster capacity building among survival sex workers and help inform evidence-based policy and practice tailored to this population.