How would your site handle this situation?
The immediate response to this situation would be to determine the participants who were affected and provide or refer them for treatment for any physical injuries as well as provide counselling and emotional support. The need for a formal police report against the assailants will also be discussed bearing in mind the illegality of homosexuality in the country and the possibility of criminal charges being brought against even the participants themselves. In-depth interviews of the affected participants would provide more insight into what happened and all these should be well documented. While these are ongoing, our research team would activate our issues management plan which would guide us on how to handle the situation. The research team and community stakeholders should come together to discuss the situation; we will call an emergency meeting at this point comprising key members of the research team such as the principal investigator, the study coordinator; principal officials of the community advisory board (CAB), representatives of the MSM community on the CAB, representatives of non-governmental organisations working among MSM in the community and the local media. These stakeholders will provide advice and direction on resolving not only the issue on the assault on the participants but also the other issues that may emerge e.g. the media reports and requests for interviews by local media.
A next step would be to work to dispel the rumours about the research site and the study. The owner/management of the nightclub where the attack occurred is a key stakeholder in this situation. The research team would request for a meeting where the owner will be educated on what the study is about. Discussions will also centre on how they can support the research study. Working with the local media, the messages that had been created as part of the issues management plan to address situations like this could be broadcast through various means such as radio, flyers, pamphlets and posters. I don’t think the radio message should not be specific about MSM but in a general sense about HIV prevention and all those groups at risk. The nightclub could support the study by allowing flyers and posters to be placed in strategic locations in the nightclub. Other informal mechanisms could include organising a local event to raise awareness about HIV and the MSM research study in the community although because homosexuality is illegal in the country, it may be difficult obtaining permission from the local authorities.
What could possibly have been done in advance to try to avoid this occurrence?
In order avoid this occurrence, way before the study started, the research team and relevant stakeholders should have anticipated and listed all possible physical and social harms that might occur to study participants and develop policies to address them. They should also have also identified and listed all possible issues that could emerge and negatively affect the success of the study and developed an issues management plan to address them. The rumours about the study site being known as a ‘place where people train to become gay’ could have been nipped in the bud if there were ongoing regular consultations with the CAB and other community stakeholders. The community stakeholders could have informed the research team about the negative local perceptions about the site and they all could have collaborated on how to handle it before it got worse.
The policy on study-related social harm should detail how to prevent the harms, the procedures for encouraging participants to report if they experience social harm, the procedures for reporting social harms, who to report to, procedures for referrals for care and services for social harms such as counselling services and so on. The need to encourage participants to report social harms is especially important because fear of reprisal attacks or worsening of stigma and discrimination may discourage some participants from speaking up.