Journal Article

Stigma, violence and HIV vulnerability among transgender persons in sex work in Maharashtra, India

Among marginalised groups in India, HIV prevalence is highest among transgender persons; however, little is known about their HIV vulnerability. This study describes transgender sex workers’ experiences of stigma and violence, a key driver of the HIV epidemic, and explores their coping responses. In-depth interviews were conducted with 68 respondents in Maharashtra state, India. Findings show that respondents face pervasive stigma and violence due to multiple marginalised social identities (transgender status, sex work, gender non-conformity), which reinforce and intersect with social inequities (economic and housing insecurity, employment discrimination, poverty), fuelling HIV vulnerability at the micro, meso and macro levels. Several factors, such as felt and internalised stigma associated with psycho-social distress and low self-efficacy to challenge abuse and negotiate condom use; clients’ power in sexual transactions; establishing trust in regular partnerships through condomless sex; norms condoning violence against gender non-conforming persons; lack of community support; police harassment; health provider discrimination and the sex work environment create a context for HIV vulnerability. In the face of such adversity, respondents adopt coping strategies to shift power relations and mobilise against abuse. Community mobilisation interventions, as discussed in the paper, offer a promising vulnerability reduction strategy to safeguard transgender sex workers’ rights and reduce HIV vulnerability.