Parinita Bhattacharjee is on the front line of HIV prevention in India and Africa

Parinita Bhattacharjee

Over the past decade, University of Manitoba and Karnataka Health Promotion Trust (KHPT) has succeeded in reducing violence against female sex workers from clients, police and gangs in India. However, abuse in intimate partnerships of female sex workers by lovers and husbands has remained high. During an intervention and evaluation study in Karnataka, India from 2015 to 2017, the researchers from the organization focused on uncovering new ways to reduce violence and increase condom use in sex workers’ intimate relationships. The study set out to investigate the relationship between social norms and HIV risk in sex workers’ intimate relationships, assess the efficacy of the intervention and sharpen the understanding of structural drivers of HIV transmission.

Parinita Bhattacharjee, senior technical advisor for HIV Prevention, Africa Programmes, at University of Manitoba, knew that she wanted to work on the front line of studies like these as she graduated from the prestigious Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, India with a master’s degree in medical and psychiatric social work. She desired a career that spanned social development across multiple sectors, including HIV & AIDS, reproductive health, gender and violence. She has been committed to this for more than 24 years and has spent the last 14 years in leadership roles working with large scale key populations focused HIV programmes funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). Bhattacharjee, currently based in Kenya, has been helping the government of Kenya scale up HIV prevention programmes focused on key populations in the last 7 years. She also led the technical support provided to NGO partners and government HIV programmes in Malawi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, South Sudan, Kenya and Haiti under the LINKAGES project supported by USAID and FHI 360, to accelerate implementation of the project.

Bhattacharjee has been involved in several research projects, a key one being Samata, which aimed to keep young girls in school in India. “In marginalized communities in south India, school drop-out rates and marriage rates are quite high,” she said. “Our hypothesis was that if we keep girls in secondary school longer, we will delay marriage and sexual debut.” In this initiative, she works with adolescent girls, their family members, schools and the larger community to help build norms around gender equality and girl child education.

Bhattacharjee takes pride in knowing that her initiatives have helped to prevent many new HIV infections. “For many of the women I work with, HIV is not their priority,” Bhattacharjee said. “The violence in their lives and the stigma and discrimination they experience is their priority.” By planning initiatives tailored to addressing this violence in their lives, HIV can be prevented as well. “We realized that we can’t prevent HIV by simply providing testing services, we needed to address their felt needs,” she said.

In the future, Bhattacharjee, who has published more than 40 articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals, hopes to focus on adolescent and young girls as they engage in transactional sex or sex work to make a significant impact. “I think often about how many new infections we could have prevented if we reached girls sooner or younger,” she said. “How do you reach adolescent and young girls? It has to be by addressing the important issues that they’re facing, like violence, reproductive health, contraception, etc.”

Bhattacharjee describes a young girl who she met during her research with adolescent and young girls. This young girl who had experienced sexual violence a few years back and was currently doing sex work to support the child that she conceived due to the assault, asked Bhattacharjee, during the research, “Where were you when I was experiencing this violence?” That struck a chord with Bhattacharjee and has left her thinking of new ways to design interventions to reach adolescent and young girls who are at risk and vulnerable to violence and HIV. “Violence starts a cycle that the girls can’t break out of, and my goal is to stop that cycle before it can even begin,” Bhattacharjee said.