The Director of UBC’s Gender and Sexual Health Initiative is a passionate advocate for turning community-based research into evidence-based policy that improves the lives of women living with, or affected by, HIV.
Vancouver’s Downtown East Side (DTES) is synonymous with lives filled with drugs, violence, poverty and HIV.
But kitty-corner from one of the DTES’s landmarks, Oppenheimer Park, Dr. Kate Shannon has a community office from which she and her research team are working to help marginalized women affected by HIV lead healthier, safer lives.
And even help give them voices powerful enough to reach Parliament Hill and beyond.
“My passion for the research that I do is really about being able to work together with the community to affect positive change,” says Dr. Shannon, winner of the 2017 CAHR-CANFAR Excellence in Research Award in Epidemiology-Public Health.
Since becoming Director of the University of British Columbia’s Gender and Sexual Health Initiative (GSHI) in 2010, Dr. Shannon has spearheaded a dynamic suite of community-based research to better understand the sexual health and structural barriers faced by women living with, or affected by, HIV.
“HIV research inherently has a huge policy element,” says Shannon, who’s led the growth of GSHI from a handful of employees to presently more than 50 academic and community researchers, graduate students, faculty and staff.
“In any of the work that I’ve done with marginalized women, whether in the context of poverty, sex work, drug use, or women living with HIV, there are a huge number of structural and social determinants that are driving a lot of the health and social inequities.”
Through the community-based research project An Evaluation of Sex Workers’ Health Access (AESHA), Dr. Shannon and team have worked to rigorously document working conditions and policy contexts that put some sex workers at vulnerability for poor health, including violence and HIV.
It’s research that led her to legally intervene in, and provide expert witness testimony to guide the unanimous 2013 Supreme Court decision in Bedford vs. Canada. The landmark ruling struck down the previous criminalized sex work laws.
“It was a powerful experience to have evidence that was able to feed into policy change. The AESHA research was based on more than 30 peer-reviewed papers we had at the time demonstrating the harms of criminalized sex work laws on the health, safety and human rights of sex workers,” says Dr. Shannon, the Canada Research Chair in Global Sexual Health and HIV/AIDS.
She’s extended this research and advocacy into an international context. In 2014, in The Lancet’s sex work and HIV series, she led a co-authored key paper, Global epidemiology of HIV among female sex workers: influence of structural determinants, launched as a major session at the World AIDS conference in Melbourne.
The series has informed global policy recommendations, including from Amnesty International, in support of full decriminalization of sex work as critical to the health and human rights of sex workers.
As with the AESHA project, GSHI’s Sexual Health and HIV/AIDS: Women’s Longitudinal Needs Assessment (SHAWNA) project is a testament to Shannon’s drive for community-based research.
The project includes a Positive Women’s Advisory Board of about a dozen diverse women living with HIV, along with a team of dedicated community and peer research associate interviewers, outreach workers, and sexual health research nurses.
“The board gives the SHAWNA team feedback on everything from priorities and interview questions at the beginning of research, to discussing what we’re seeing in our results and key areas we might consider going forward,” says Dr. Shannon.
The research structure also reflects a community-based model that integrates care and capacity building into the research process. Since launching in 2015, the SHAWNA team has interviewed more than 300 women living with HIV, trans-inclusive, interviews conducted in part by community and peer research associate interviewers.
Shannon’s vision has made GSHI a go-to resource for local to global organizations.
This includes the WHO’s Global Commission on HIV and the Law, and recent consultations with Canada’s Department of Justice on the impacts of Bill C-36, a current law criminalizing the purchase of sex.
“It is a team effort to try to foster evidence-based dialogue to ensure research can really drive policy change to improve the lives of marginalized communities and those living with or affected by HIV,” says Dr. Shannon.
Each year, the CAHR – CANFAR Excellence in Research Awards are awarded to highlight and celebrate the contributions of Canadian researchers in HIV/AIDS research. Dr. Shannon was awarded the prize at the 2017 CAHR Conference for “her national and international leadership in community based HIV research (and) authentically engaging affected communities and ensuring research translates to affecting change for people living with and affected by HIV/AIDS.”