PhD Livelihoods and transactional sex in Humanitarian Crises’ in Colombia, Pakistan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)

Starting in 2021, Dorothea Hilhorst, professor of humanitarian studies of ISS, jointly with ISS faculty Karin Astrid Siegmann and Silke Heumann will start a 4 year programme to implement the research project ‘ListenH: Livelihoods and transactional sex in Humanitarian Crises’.

Many people survive humanitarian crises through transactional sex – the exchange of sex for cash, goods or services. The project seeks to understand why and how people engage in this practice and what consequences this has. It will also consider what biases exist in humanitarian services and protection policies, and how these can be addressed.

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Full vacancy details and application (Academic Transfer)

What do we offer to inspire you?

This position offers an exciting opportunity to learn, to hone research skills and to interact with research teams across cultures, contexts, and continents.

Transactional sex – the exchange of sex for cash, goods, services, commodities, or privileges - 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 transactions. Transactional sex can help people survive or improve their situation but is also a precarious and risky strategy shaped by unequal power relations. The understanding of transactional sex in contexts of humanitarian crisis is hampered by biases and taboos that may (re)produce or even aggravate structural violence against the people involved.

Employing a large research network, the research will be grounded in country-based studies in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Colombia and Pakistan. It will answer the following questions:

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

Considering the complexities of the contexts, the subject, including prevailing misconceptions, and the high diversity of possible research participants, the project is methodologically challenging. The research will use mixed methods, and build as much as possible on participation, in particular, through an adaptation of the Participatory Ethnographic Evaluation and Research (PEER) approach. This way, the project offers a rich learning space for the PhD candidate to evolve and reflect on methodological issues and to document the research process.

In addressing the questions above, the project will yield cross-disciplinary impact. Societal impact will be achieved through networked interaction around health, livelihoods, social and humanitarian policies in the case study countries and globally. 


The PhD will engage with the potential and limitations of participatory methodologies in the context of humanitarian crises. This may involve the development and adaptation of the project’s emergent, participatory methodology as well as its ethical framework, in close collaboration with the research team. The empirical research will involve multiple stages of mixed methods research, which combine attention to both the scope and meanings of TS in humanitarian settings and to improve the results’ validity through triangulation. So far, the following components are envisaged:

  • Survey research will allow us to map relevant knowledge and intervention approaches among humanitarian actors and estimate the scope of TS compared to other livelihoods strategies in humanitarian settings; and
  • Qualitative methods, such as Focus Group Discussions (FGDs), in-depth interviews, and country-specific adaptations of the PEER methodology, suitable to investigate practices of transactional sex in their localized context.

We especially encourage candidates from or with a strong association with at least one of the selected countries to apply.

The PhD candidate will be part of the research team on transactional sex in situations of humanitarian crises, and expected to contribute to:

  • A collaborative team that shares resources, helps each other, and enjoys pushing the boundaries of methodology and theory in the field of humanitarian, development, gender, or sexuality studies.
  • A variety of ways to networking and development of outcomes for policy and practice to enhance the research uptake of the ListenH project.
Tuesday 31 Aug 2021, 23:59

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