Peer Educators Sensitize Police to Improve HIV and Gender-Based Violence Services for Sex Workers

Police leaders at a LINKAGES training. Photo credit: LINKAGES/MSH

At the beginning of LINKAGES, peer educator Maria* was training female sex workers (FSW) on HIV prevention in a busy nightclub in downtown Luanda when police detained her. Maria spent several hours at the police station before she was able to explain that she was an outreach worker with the Associação Beneficente Cristã (ABC) under the LINKAGES Project. With support from ABC ́s coordinator, she was then able to educate the police about how peer educators work and to raise their awareness to help protect sex workers.

Sex work is illegal in Angola, but is not considered a crime. However, this legal framework is not always understood, and police often detain FSW. Even though peer educators were not engaging in sex work, many were arrested during outreach work at the beginning of LINKAGES because police associated them with “immoral” work. Therefore, very few FSW and peer educators sought help from authorities, even if they experienced violence.

A 2017 study conducted by LINKAGES of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections in Angola indicated that 20.5 percent of FSW reported being assaulted in the previous year, and 15.2 percent of them said they had spent at least one night in jail in the same period.

The links between violence and HIV are well established. The criminalization of sex work, stigma, discrimination, and violence often prevent FSW from seeking and receiving HIV services. Specifically, violence promotes the spread of HIV by limiting the ability to negotiate safe sexual practices, disclose HIV status, and access health and other critical services due to fear of reprisal and discrimination. Therefore, integrating HIV and gender-based violence (GBV)-prevention services is necessary for achieving lasting results in the fight against HIV.

The community model of HIV prevention promoted by LINKAGES and Angola’s National AIDS Institute provides training for peer educators—current or former sex workers—who are partnered with an HIV lay counselor to seek out and sensitize sex workers at the places they frequent, such as food trucks, clubs, bars, and brothels, known as hot spots. As a result, more than 40,000 FSW in Luanda Province have discovered their HIV status since LINKAGES began in 2015.

To support peer educators and FSW, Management Sciences for Health (MSH), as the implementer of LINKAGES in Angola, worked with its local civil society organization partners to include the delivery of GBV services into daily work. This was possible through a strategic partnership between USAID and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, working through their principal recipient, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Since 2017, MSH and the Associação de Solidariedade & Ajuda Mútua Angolana (ASCAM) have sensitized more than 600 police officers on correctly interpreting the law on sex work and the importance of bringing health services to hot spots, substantially improving the work environment for peer educators and FSW. They now feel more supported by civil society and the police when experiencing violence or insecurity. Since the police sensitizations began, arbitrary detentions of peer educators and sex workers have declined as well, according to anecdotal reports.

ASCAM’s peer educators were trained as well on GBV to help educate their peers and provide support to victims of violence. Between 2017 and 2019, they sensitized more than 24,000 FSW in Luanda Province on GBV. At the same time, ASCAM received 314 reports of assaults. The organization provided psychosocial support and referred victims to other institutions, especially in cases of sexual assault as post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) with antiretroviral drugs must be administered within the first 72 hours.

Through this program, peer educators like Maria are able to cope better with their own traumas by helping their peers. They are empowered to educate police on the needs of sex workers and advocate for protection, resulting in advancing the safety of their peers and minimizing the risk of contracting HIV or other sexually transmitted infections.

*Pseudonym to protect identity.

The Linkages across the Continuum of HIV Services for Key Populations Affected by HIV (LINKAGES) project, a global cooperative agreement led by FHI 360, was implemented in Angola by MSH in partnership with civil society organizations (CSOs), government stakeholders, and key population (KP) individuals, with support from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). 

ABC is an Angolan civil society organization whose mission is to provide vulnerable populations, such as homeless people, sex workers, drug users, and prisoners, with psychosocial assistance and education, professionalization, and services on treating and preventing HIV, other sexually transmitted infections, malaria, and tuberculosis. ABC contributed to LINKAGES in 2016, offering HIV services to 1,289 female sex workers in Luanda Province. ASCAM envisions an Angola where everyone has the opportunity to live a healthy life, to feel integrated into society, and to have a voice. It was founded in Luanda in 1989 to promote the improvement of the physical, intellectual, social, and moral conditions necessary for human development.