The results from our analysis suggest that exposure to a large-scale HIV prevention initiative in Karnataka, India, was associated with higher reported consistent condom use (CCU) among women engaged in sex work with their commercial sex clients. After adjusting for social and environmental factors, a strong independent association was observed between CCU with all clients in the most recent day worked and CCU with occasional clients, and five measures of intervention exposure. Moreover, a significant dose-response relationship was observed between these two outcomes and increased duration since first contacted by intervention staff, as well as number of condom demonstrations seen by staff in the last month. There was also a significant dose-response relationship observed between CCU with all clients and the number of times contacted by staff in the past month. In multivariable analysis, intervention exposure was not significantly associated with increased CCU with FSWs’ most recent repeat commercial client, their most recent non-paying partner or their husband or cohabiting partner.
The association between increased intervention exposure and increased CCU with all clients likely reflects higher condom use with occasional clients, which constitute the majority of commercial clients in Karnataka. On a micro-level, condom use with occasional clients likely improved due to regular contact between FSWs and peer outreach workers (i.e., members of local sex worker communities), who were responsible for providing condoms to FSWs, giving demonstrations of correct condom use and facilitating conversations about risk and vulnerability . Of note, our exposure variables measuring contacts by peers were not independent of our variables measuring condom demonstrations by peers. Although intervention exposure variables could not directly capture the influence of community involvement or mobilization strategies, peers also encouraged membership in community groups and were proponents of community mobilization, which is intended to facilitate condom negotiation by FSWs and use with clients through both individual-level and collective empowerment and agency [14, 18]. Interestingly, CCU with clients in this analysis was highest for FSWs who had seen two condom demonstrations by staff in the previous month and lower for FSWs who had seen three or more. CCU with occasional clients and repeat clients was also higher among FSWs who had been contacted <5 times compared to those who had been contacted 5+ times. These results could suggest that there may be a point where increased contact by staff or education about correct condom use by intervention staff will not improve condom use . Resources may be better directed to other features of the intervention if additional increases in condom use are to be observed. CCU was found to steadily increase with increased duration since first contacted by the intervention. This effect may not have levelled off (as with the previous two intervention exposure variables) over time due to the limited amount of time since the intervention began in some districts (varied from 1.5-2.5 years). Condom use may also have naturally increased over time in southern India (reflected in the duration since first contacted by staff) albeit likely at slower rates than in if the intervention was not present. Condom use may not have reached 100% in all commercial sex acts due to the timing of survey data collection (e.g., condom use may still increase with increased exposure to the intervention). There may also be groups of highly vulnerable FSWs who may be unable to negotiate condom use with all clients who refuse to wear condoms, even if exposed to the intervention. Condom use with commercial clients was relatively high for those FSWs who reported that they were not exposed to the intervention. This may be due to the presence of other HIV prevention programmes in place prior to Avahan. SBS surveys were also implemented 7-19 months after Avahan was introduced in different districts, and an independent analysis retrospectively assessing condom use confirmed that condom use increased notably after Avahan was introduced . Condom use may also be high due to the indirect impacts of Avahan (e.g., through increased peer awareness of condoms or increased condom availability ). Improved condom availability was also a key feature of the intervention . This facilitated condom use simply by increasing access, but also likely by increasing social acceptance of condoms through increased visibility and presence. Other interventions incorporating these program elements have shown success in improving condom use among FSWs [10, 11, 32].
Results from this study are supported by other studies showing similar results. These include observational studies suggesting that condom use as reported by clients  and FSWs [30, 34] increased after the introduction of the intervention, as well as studies suggesting that condom availability to FSWs increased substantially since the intervention began . Increases in condom use among high-risk groups could have important implications for HIV and STI prevalence in Karnataka. Sentinel surveillance and observational studies have found decreasing trends in terms of HIV and STIs among FSWs in Karnataka state since the intervention was introduced [34, 35]. Moreover, results are also consistent with mathematical modelling indicating that the increase in condom use after initiation of the intervention was consistent with decreasing HIV epidemiological trends over multiple rounds of survey data collection in Karnataka state [36, 37]. There is evidence to suggest that increased condom levels can be sustained over time in this population . Nevertheless, continued monitoring of condom use levels and assessments of the impact of observed increases in condom use on reducing HIV and STIs is important for a long-term and comprehensive understanding of the impact of the intervention.
While a higher probability of CCU with all clients in the most recent day worked and occasional clients was observed for FSWs with increased exposure to the intervention, the same patterns were not observed among FSWs for CCU with their most recent repeat client, non-paying partner and their husband or cohabiting partner. Moreover, CCU with FSWs’ husband or cohabiting partner decreased significantly with increasing numbers of condom demonstrations seen by intervention staff in the previous month, when testing for trends. It is not clear why this was observed, but of note, CCU with FSWs’ husband or cohabiting partner was very low and the absolute proportions did not vary substantially according to the number of condom demonstrations seen (10.1% to 13.8%). The reasons for low condom use within non-commercial and regular commercial sexual partnerships of FSWs are complex. These may include power disparities that favour the male partner [4, 38, 39], including an economic dependence on longer-term male partners [40, 41]. The use of condoms may not be acceptable in non-commercial relationships, if there is greater longevity, trust and intimacy within the partnership; the use of condoms may also be perceived as a symbol of infidelity and foster mistrust . Women may agree to not use condoms with repeat clients in exchange for these partners providing a stable form of longer-term income or because they feel they can assess if their partner is not infected with HIV after they have seen him several times. Further research is required to better understand condom use with non-commercial and regular commercial partners of FSWs; in particular, understanding gender-based interpersonal factors that influence condom use and preferences by both partners, as well as environmental factors (e.g. favourable societal views of condoms) that could be incorporated into interventions to increase condom use. The female condom could play an increasing role in HIV prevention within these partnerships. In addition, recent promising findings of the effectiveness of microbicides indicate that microbicides could play an important role in HIV prevention as an alternative to condoms for women whose partner does not use condoms .
There are several limitations to this study. This study is based on self-reported data from cross-sectional surveys collected in three districts and is not experimental in design. This study was based on data collected only from FSWs and should be considered alongside studies that show consistent results in other populations (e.g., clients), using other data sources to assess exposure to the intervention, and in similar settings. The condom use outcomes used in this study did not specify a timeframe. However, the questions were intended to capture recent (e.g., condom use with the last 10 clients) or current average behaviour. We relied on self-reported answers to questions that may be perceived as sensitive (e.g. consistency of condom use), and the questions are therefore susceptible to social desirability bias . This may have overestimated the relationship between intervention exposure and CCU, and it is possible that women with increased condom use are more likely or able to be accessed by intervention-related services and programs rather than the other way around. However, we believe that this is unlikely, since the total sample size was relatively large, particularly for a marginalized and hidden population, and the cluster sampling design was used to make the sample as representative as possible, with complex survey methods accounting for the sampling design. Additionally, our results suggest not only a relationship between exposure to the intervention and increased condom use, but a dose-response relationship between increased exposure to the intervention and increased condom use with all clients and occasional clients.
The impact of increases in condom use among FSWs and their clients on the HIV epidemic in southern India should continue to be assessed. Large-scale HIV prevention programs targeted at groups with high HIV risk could in theory also have an indirect impact on HIV prevalence within general populations ; however, results from mathematical modelling suggest that the current observed decrease in antenatal clinic HIV prevalence in India was likely not caused by the FSW-targeted intervention, although it is likely too early to assess the impact of the intervention on bridge groups or groups with low risk for HIV . Since many clients of FSWs have other longer-term and/or non-paying partners such as wives, as well as other FSW partners, and since condom use is low in these partnerships, clients provide an important transmission “bridge” between FSWs and the general population [45, 47]. Since condom use tends to be relatively low among FSWs’ repeat clients and non-paying partnerships, these partners can also provide a transmission bridge to FSWs .
If the intervention’s influence on condom use varies by type of commercial sex client (e.g. occasional compared to repeat clients) and the patterns of sexual structure vary geographically (e.g., districts such as Bangalore have higher fractions of occasional clients and lower numbers of repeat clients per month), we would expect to observe different intervention effects across the three districts in Karnataka. CCU with non-paying partners was also much lower in Bangalore (12.8%) compared to the other two districts (45.7% and 41.6% respectively), indicating that the importance of these partnerships in this district may be more pronounced, and should be considered in this district more than others when planning interventions. Exploring the relative role of different patterns of FSW-client sexual structure and variation in the numbers of different types of partners on HIV transmission in Karnataka, India, using simulation studies, would be useful to further improve the impact of the intervention [3, 24, 49–51].