Katie Brushett

Global health student finds empowerment reduces AIDS

September 17, 2008

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By Marianne Meadahl

Sex workers in the Indian city of Mysore have a new outlook on their personal health and safety – and that is reducing the number of HIV/AIDS cases.

The workers are reaping the benefits of a new program that is helping them to empower themselves, says Katie Brushett, a student in SFU’s Global Health master’s program who spent the summer studying the program’s progress.

The sex workers belong to a collective called Ashodaya, which means ‘dawn of hope.’ It’s a community-based initiative funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The organization helps empower and mobilize high-risk groups in hopes of reducing HIV rates.

"We spent much of the first month building a rapport with the community," says Brushett, noting that the interaction, and her attempts to learn the local language, enriched the interviews that followed.

"In Mysore, sex work is street-based and the women work out of rented rooms in lodges. Prior to the project, sex workers, in fear of being identified as such, would not interact with one another in the field. They had no idea of their legal rights or of the health risks they were taking."

Since the project began in 2004, there has been a complete change, Brushett (above) notes.

"Ashodaya has mobilized approximately 1,600 sex workers. They now have strong social networks and have taken charge of their lives. All have come together under one umbrella and look after one another like a family.

"I was most impressed with how the sex workers have taken ownership over the project. The program’s technical team bridged the scientific gaps, but the sex workers themselves have been carrying out what needs to be done."

That includes setting up a survey to compile baseline data on HIV/AIDS prevalence rates. The workers were trained to conduct interviews and take samples. "They’re building their own capacity and strengthening their social solidarity," says Brushett. "They also see the importance of the process - and the numbers dropping."

The Global Health master’s program is aimed at students who want to make a difference by improving population and public health in developing countries.

"The program has given me a better understanding of the factors that affect people’s health, especially in vulnerable populations," says Brushett, who plans to eventually attend medical school at Australia’s University of Queensland.
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