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In September 2014, the research project ‘Creating opportunities? Economic empowerment, political positioning and participation of sex workers in Kenya and Ethiopia’ organized two inception meetings in Kenya and Ethiopia. Because of the early start, the first research phase of the research project – stakeholder mapping and analysis – was completed in February 2015. This phase produced two country-specific documents mapping strategic actors’ practices, policies, tensions and collaborations pertaining to sex workers and their economic empowerment. The first article based on this data was submitted by the project to the International Conference on AIDS and STIs in Africa (ICASA), which will take place in November 2015.

Individual economies of sex workers
In February 2015, the second phase commenced, focusing on the individual economies of sex workers, their financial situations, their strategies to survive and build livelihoods, and how this is affected by stigma, violence and health challenges. This component relies heavily on a mixed-method approach carried out in three different geographic locations in each country where the predominance of a particular economic sector (such as tourism, agriculture or fisheries) dictates the particularities of the local sex industry. Long-term qualitative research, using ethnographic methods, such as participant observation and ethnographic interviews, will be followed by a survey and culminate in a participatory methods workshops with participating sex workers. Fifteen individual sex workers per country are meeting weekly with our researchers to discuss their economic diaries. In these diaries sex workers record their income, expenditure and savings. The quantitative financial data from these diaries is documented in an overview that will enable us to analyse and compare shifts in, for instance, income and consumption patterns and link these to personal life events and larger events and processes (such as a slump in the national economy or Christmas). This quantitative diary is complemented by an in-depth interview with each sex worker to contextualize the data and broaden our understanding of the various ways in which sex workers survive and build livelihoods in their everyday lives.

In addition, empowerment is studied as a collective trajectory. Observations are being made on a regular basis at meetings of self-help savings groups and in other economic empowerment programmes. Interviews are conducted with a select group of participants. This data will enable us to grasp why most collective activities fail to substantially improve the social and economic position of sex workers.

These two methods are complemented by the long-term participant observation of sex workers in their everyday lives. How, when and why do sex workers make decisions with regard to their economic situation and future aspirations? This data will help us in analysing, not only what sex workers earn, spend and save, but how positions (such as class, age, gender, ethnicity and locality) shape such patterns in different temporal and spatial contexts. What increases and what impedes their autonomy/dependency and security? And, why, when and how do some (groups of) sex workers become successful in diversifying their sources of income – and why do other groups and individuals fail to do so?

Lastly, both research teams are having regular meetings with our consortium partners in Kenya, Ethiopia and The Netherlands to share emerging insights and discuss upcoming questions. This has several benefits for the research process and for the work being currently undertaken by our consortium partners. These meetings enable us to help our partners to develop or change policies to better match the lived experiences of sex workers. They also give our partners an opportunity to ask us to further explore questions that they deem relevant.

This process has already led to several changes at the Sex Workers Outreach Program (SWOP) in Nairobi. Through our research, it became clear that the attending hours of the clinics were not convenient for many sex workers. Consequently, SWOP has extended its opening hours. Moreover, our data showed that HIV negative male sex workers felt neglected and in need of a support system. In response, SWOP has included an outreach program for HIV negative male sex workers.

Researchers have also contributed to the policy and project development of consortium partners, such as Soa Aids, by providing advice and analyses of economic empowerment programmes for sex workers, based on research insights and feedback from sex workers. The close relationship between the research teams and the consortium partners promises even more exchange and fruitful discussions in the future.

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