Background: We explore the role of local community participation in HIV prevention. It has been argued that participation promotes sexual health through building 'social capital' (trust, support, positive identity resulting from local participation) in target communities, providing the optimal context for the re-negotiation of sexual identities and empowerment processes that facilitate behaviour change. We report on a process evaluation of the peer education component of a community-based HIV prevention intervention in a South African mining community, exploring the role of social capital in facilitating or impeding programme success. Methods: Three year longitudinal case studies of peer education by miners, sex workers and youth, including 350 depth interviews; analyses of project documentation; interviews with project personnel. Results: We examine the extent to which the project succeeded in building social capital, and factors which impeded or promoted this goal. Ironically, while there was some success in building strong peer education networks in informal settings (amongst sex workers and youth out of school), a range of institutional obstacles impeded such network development in the formal settings of mines and schools. There was some success in building 'bonding social capital' (collaborative networks within homogenous groups, such as sex workers and unemployed youth). There was less success in building 'bridging social capital' (bringing together local stakeholders as diverse as mine managements, government officials, impoverished local residents, doctors, academics and traditional healers). Conclusions: While we have no doubt that community participation plays a key role in creating local contexts which enable and support behaviour change, much remains to be learned about the complexities of implementing such participation. The concepts of bonding and bridging social capital provide useful heuristic tools for research and practice in this area
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