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Women’s Network for Unity – their account of the Tenofovir Trial

November 12th, 2008

Dr Petra

Women’s Network for Unity are a grassroots organisation created by and for sex workers in Cambodia.

They recently gained notoriety after protesting against a proposed drug trial for the HIV medication Tenofovir. WNU questioned the trial in terms of it’s ethics and process. They wanted to know what the risks of participation were, requested information about the trial be provided in their language, and requested that the researchers running the trial offered participants life insurance for those who suffered adverse events.

Those running the trial clearly experienced frustration in trying to get the community involved, and stated offering health insurance would be unethical since it would coerce people into the study. WNU and supporters continued to argue that they needed some reassurance that their dependents would be supported if anything were to happen for them by participating in the study.

NGOs and other healthcare organisations complained about the WNU and suggested they were getting in the way of developing treatments for HIV. It was suggested that those who participated in the trial would be benefiting human kind. Which is a noble ideal but fairly meaningless to someone who has already selected sex work as a means to support their dependents and for whom humanity has done little to help.

Obviously a case like this is always going to produce divides between social researchers and activists. In such cases the activists are often demonised and made out as those who ‘derail’ projects and hamper the progress of science. It does not seem to occur to scientists that it is both their job and duty to explain research clearly and offer meaningful reimbursement to participants.

In this case WNU and their supporters argued they did not have enough assurances their wellbeing and that of their dependents would be looked after and petitioned against the drug trial.

You can follow the story through this 45 minute film the group have made. It highlights some of the reasons cis and Trans women are involved in prostitution, describes the support network formed by sex workers, and outlines the education programmes they provide. It also shows the questions people had about the drug trial, the questions they raised about the study, and how researchers and NGOs responded to them as a result.

You can access the film here.

It is essential viewing for anyone with an interest in sex work, activism, research ethics, and community involvement in health studies.

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