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Sex workers in India are central to HIV prevention programmes, yet the relationships of sex workers with those who conduct HIV prevention have not been studied. In this article I describe and analyse the relationships between four sets of very different social actors: global funding bodies; the Indian government; non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and; sex workers who are involved in HIV prevention in Chennai, India. Using ethnographic data derived from fieldwork conducted in 2004-5, I show that HIV prevention is a performance, rhetoric and a resource available to sex workers as well as to the NGOs. HIV prevention programmes create opportunities for sex workers for social mobilisation and offer them ways of subverting stigma, but these programmes are insufficient because they produce and reproduce existing power hierarchies. Thus when analysing inequality in sex workers' lives, the influences of local power asymmetries as well as the global dimensions of international HIV prevention policies need to be considered.

Original publication




Journal article


Journal of South Asian Development

Publication Date





65 - 81