Feature story

“We cannot provide only HIV services while sex workers are hungry”: Thai community organization steps in

01 June 2020

When the Thai government ordered the closure of entertainment venues in the country in March, it didn’t just signal an end to pulsating music and rounds of drinks shared with friends. It also signalled the start of difficult times for an estimated 145 000 sex workers living in Thailand.

Initially, Service Workers in Groups (SWING), a Thai national organization providing HIV services and advocating for sex workers’ rights, received requests from sex workers for the most basic of needs—food. As requests began flooding in, it became clear that without a source of income many sex workers were unable to cover the cost of daily expenses, housing and medicine.

“When the COVID-19 outbreak began, nobody was talking about sex workers, and no measures were in place to help them,” said Surang Janyam, Director of SWING.

Spurred by growing concerns about how the outbreak has impacted the lives of sex workers, SWING, in collaboration with Planned Parenthood Association Thailand and Dannok Health and Development Community Volunteers, with support from UNAIDS, launched a community-led rapid assessment of 255 sex workers from Bangkok, Pattaya and Dannok and community-based organizations throughout the country.

The outbreak has had a severe socioeconomic impact on the lives of sex workers, further exacerbated by the lack of social protection measures. According to the findings from the rapid assessment, 91% of respondents became unemployed or lost their source of income following the start of the COVID-19 outbreak. Three quarters of the respondents could not make enough money to cover daily expenses and 66% could no longer cover the cost of housing.

Ms Janyam spoke about the difficulties faced by sex workers and how the priorities for SWING’s work have shifted. “As a sex worker-led organization, we cannot provide only HIV services while sex workers are hungry and lack the basic needs to survive,” she said. She explained that many of the sex workers expressed that they were not eligible for the government assistance of 5000 baht. Answering the call for help, SWING staff have taken to the streets to raise donations and deliver food to sex workers in their network. 

Widespread coverage in the media and on personal blogs has catalysed a public conversation about the lack of social protections for sex workers. Ms Janyam also points to donations from local businesses and visits from younger people wanting to help as promising signs of how wider audiences are becoming more engaged on the topic of supporting sex workers in their communities.

The COVID-19 outbreak has also contributed to new challenges for HIV prevention. Fears of COVID-19 have deterred people from visiting clinics to be tested for HIV. Additionally, the rapid assessment findings revealed that almost half of the sex workers surveyed had difficulty accessing sexually transmitted infection screenings. In response to those observations, SWING partnered with a hospital capable of conducting COVID-19 testing, thereby drawing in sex workers interested in being tested for COVID-19 and creating an opportunity to counsel them about HIV tests. These changes in practice show possible synergies in prevention measures for both COVID-19 and HIV prevention and treatment.

“The results from the rapid assessment have proven to be a strong tool for advocacy and decision-making. Stakeholders of the AIDS response have collectively identified and started to implement priority actions as an immediate response to the needs of sex workers during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Patchara Benjarattanaporn, UNAIDS Country Director for Thailand.

Ms Janyam reflects on what this will mean for SWING’s work and recalls the ways in which sex workers were not afforded the same social safeguards as others—they were forgotten. “We must transform ourselves. Community-led organizations must apply a holistic and comprehensive approach, providing immediate basic needs, integrating a package of prevention for both COVID-19 and HIV health services, as well as mental health support for sex workers,” she said.

She affirms that SWING and other charitable groups will continue to seek donations and provide basic provisions for sex workers, recognizing that the need for assistance will remain long after the situation eases, long after the bars and restaurants have reopened.