Understanding transactional sex in situations of humanitarian crises

ListenH project

Transactional sex (TS) is defined as the exchange of sex for cash, goods, services, commodities or privileges. It is widely prevalent in contexts of conflict and disaster and takes a variety of forms, from the voluntary to the implicitly coercive, and from sex work to sugar dating relations or occasional sexual transactions.

Understanding transactional sex in situations of humanitarian crises and reforming institutional responses (ListenH) focuses on answering the following questions:

  1. What are the motivations for, practices of and consequences of transactional sex in humanitarian crisis situations based on the perspectives of people engaging in it?
  2. How do these motivations relate (or not) to views and assumptions embedded in humanitarian and policy responses to transactional sex in crisis situations?
  3. How can the needs and problems of people involved in transactional sex be more effectively addressed?

During humanitarian crises caused by conflict, natural disaster, mass violations of human rights, political collapse and/or mass displacement, people simultaneously face important financial and material losses and losses of livelihoods and livelihood opportunities. In this context, TS is an important, yet underacknowledged, livelihood strategy.

TS can help people survive or improve their situation but is also a precarious and risky strategy shaped by unequal power relations. The understanding of TS in contexts of humanitarian crises is hampered by biases and taboos that may (re)produce or even aggravate structural violence against the people involved. Research and service approaches are rarely informed by the perspective of the people involved.

Project aims

The ListenH research project aims to identify motivations for, practices of and consequences of transactional sex in humanitarian crisis situations from the perspective of those engaging in it. Additionally, the project will investigate these motivations and their relation to the views and assumptions that are embedded in humanitarian and policy responses to TS in crisis situations. Lastly, the research project aims to identify how the needs and problems of people engaged in TS can be more effectively addressed.

The project started in November 2021 and is expected to have achieved its project aims by April 2026.

'Everybody knows it is happening, we just don't know what to do about it ...'

'What can we be mindful of? How can we approach it? How should we talk about it?'

Refugee service provider in India*

*Women's Refugee Commission (WRC) 2016:3 Refugees Engaged in Sex Work

Employing a large research network, the research project is grounded in country-based studies in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Pakistan and Colombia. These studies are coordinated by the Centre de Recherche et Education pour Genre et Developpement  in Bukavu DRC, Cross-roads Advisory in Islamabad Pakistan, and the Ensamble Investigaciones in Bogotá Colombia, respectively.

The project will use mixed methods, including for instance both surveys and qualitative interviews, and particularly focus on collaborating with people who are involved in transactional sex as well as actors responsible for protection and service delivery. We seek to involve people practicing transactional sex and humanitarian practitioners in all project stages, as researchers and policy advisors.

Outputs

'Rethinking Transactional Sex in Humanitarian Settings: Reflections for the way forward' - BlISS blog post by Clea Kahn, Michelle Alm Engvall, Shirin Heidari, Megan Denise Smith, Dorothea Hilhorst. February 2022.

Project contact

Professor Thea Hilhorst

Email address
hilhorst@iss.nl

Funding

The Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) awarded this project €750,000.

NWO is  the central Dutch organization for funding scientific research in all fields of scholarship. The funds are allocated through the Social Sciences and Humanities (SSH) funding line of NWO.  

NWO SSH grant, project number 406.20.SW.035

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