Feature story

COVID-19 responses must uphold and protect the human rights of sex workers

24 April 2020

The Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) and UNAIDS recently released a joint statement calling on countries to take immediate, critical action to protect the health and rights of sex workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pandemic, as with other health crises, is exposing existing inequalities and disproportionately affecting people already criminalized, marginalized and living in precarious health and economic situations, often outside social protection mechanisms.

Around the world, sex workers are being forgotten in government responses to the COVID-19 crisis. As sex workers and their clients self-isolate, sex workers are finding themselves unprotected, increasingly vulnerable and unable to provide for themselves and their families. In Ecuador, the Colectivo Flor De Azalea (the Association of Women Sex Workers) has highlighted the sudden lack of support and access to basic services that sex workers face. “Women sex workers have suffered a great impact due to the health emergency. We take to the streets with great fear and we are afraid of being violated. We do not have money for food, rent, medicine; health services are closed. There is no access to condoms—colleagues have died due to COVID-19.”

“Human rights law mandates that human rights are inalienable, universal, interdependent and indivisible,” said Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of UNAIDS. “Ensuring that this is a reality for all—especially the most vulnerable among us—is essential during this pandemic, but will also build the resilient communities we need to emerge from it.”

As sex workers report interruptions to condom supplies owing to the pandemic, sex workers living with HIV say they are losing access to essential medicines as well. In Eswatini, Voice of Our Voices report that, “for those who are on HIV treatment, it is hard to meet their visit days as there is no transport. For prevention commodities, it is hard to reach them.”

With sex work criminalized in almost every country, sex workers are also more vulnerable to punitive measures linked to the enforcement of COVID-19 regulations. Increased policing can expose sex workers to more harassment and violence, and in several countries has already led to home raids, compulsory COVID-19 testing and the arrest and threatened deportation of migrant sex workers. For those who are driven to the streets by homelessness, as has become the case for many brothel and migrant sex workers, the lack of support means little safety or means to follow through on government requirements.

The criminalization of sex work in most countries also poses particular challenges for accessing government support. In the United States of America, SWOP-Tucson (the Sex Workers Outreach Project) explained that, “many of these schemes require proof that employment has been lost or reduced as a result of COVID-19. Because sex work is criminalized, it’s not possible to provide necessary paperwork and proof of unemployment or hardship. Thus, sex workers can’t get rent/mortgage relief, utility payment abatements or unemployment checks.”

Even in countries where sex work is legalized to some degree, many sex workers are finding that the system of benefits extended to workers in the formal sector does not include them. This is the case in Germany, for example, where sex workers highlight the barriers to accessing support for anyone living outside of the system. “While the government has provided a package for (registered) freelance workers, sex workers have not been in any way addressed in particular, and there is no potential for anyone living here illegally to access money from them.”

As the global crisis deepens, sex workers are increasingly faced with the difficult choice of isolation with no income or support or working at a risk to their own health and safety. Another problem has been that the majority of affordable short-term housing opportunities have closed while sex workers struggle to pay rent or pay hotel room fees. This disappearance of short-term housing, coupled with the shuttering of workplaces, has resulted in sudden homelessness for sex workers in several countries, a situation that is especially aggravated for migrant sex workers, many of whom are also finding themselves stranded by border closures.

Despite the continued exclusion of sex worker communities from emergency public health planning groups, sex workers have begun coordinating their own responses to the crisis. Several mutual aid and emergency fundraising campaigns have been created, enabling sex workers and sex worker organizations to access and distribute funds and essential items. One such initiative was undertaken by And Soppeku, a sex worker-led organization in Senegal, which distributed food packages and hygiene kits to members in three regions (Dakar, Thies and Kaolack). Similar initiatives are being developed around the world in the absence of government action and support.

However, the self-organization of individuals and groups must not be considered a substitute for urgently needed government support. Governments are bound by international human rights law to respect, protect and fulfil human rights, without discrimination, even in times of emergency.

Sex workers and sex worker organizations are calling for equal protection under the law and access to income support and to health care. UNAIDS joins this call to action, underscoring the importance of a human rights-based approach to COVID-19 responses, centred on empowerment and community engagement.

Quotes in this article were gathered through NSWP’s COVID-19 Impact Survey, which is collecting responses from sex workers and sex worker organizations in order to monitor what governments are doing for the sex worker community at this time.