Feature story

Targeting sex workers is not the answer

08 June 2020

When the Government of Cameroon ordered everyone to stay at home as part of the COVID-19 response, Marie-Jeanne Oumarou (not her real name) rushed to buy groceries and to gather her three children and move them the countryside.

With her children in safe hands, she hoped she could still work.

“I didn’t realize how hard it would be during confinement,” she said. “It doesn’t make sense for us sex workers.”

Ms Oumarou has learned the ins and outs of the couloirs—the avenues of small hotels where sex workers work—in Cameroon’s capital city, Yaoundé, over the past 10 years. Abandoned with her young children, she became a sex worker in 2010. She has grown to know the various older women, former sex workers themselves, who she pays to access safe places to work. COVID-19 changed her life overnight, though. 

“Hotels closed, clients were rare, the police constantly around, I cannot survive,” she said.

Denise Ngatchou, Executive Director of Horizons Femmes, a nongovernmental organization that helps vulnerable women, said she was shocked to see how sex workers suddenly became a target.

“Police arrested and held women, disclosing zero information,” she said. “We felt powerless because the government had the upper hand with all the COVID-19 measures.”

Rosalie Pasma, a manager at one of the Horizons Femmes drop-in health centres, shrugged her shoulders in agreement during a Skype interview.

“Everything became much more complicated during COVID-19,” she said. “From women missing health check-ups because of transport issues to our legal expert not being able to access the police stations to defend arrested female sex workers, we felt the confinement in more ways than one.”

Ms Ngatchou piped in, saying that there was no reason to give up. Horizons Femmes vowed to stay open. A skeletal staff with condensed hours still provided HIV testing and other services by respecting preventive measures. 

“People told us to stop all our on-the-ground awareness visits, but we held on as long as we could, giving coronavirus tips to women so they knew of the potential dangers,” she said.

They also kept handing out masks and started a crowdfunding project to purchase more protective gear. What really bothers Ms Ngatchou is how so many things happened before their eyes and they could do so little.

“Easing laws against sex work and ending arbitrary arrests of sex workers would really make an impact,” she said.

In the end, she believes that chastising sex workers only worsens the situation.

“Don’t you think that if sex workers hide they are more likely to work and infect themselves or become infected than if there was an infrastructure to help them?” she asked.

Reflecting on what she said, she added that this applies to COVID-19 as well as HIV.

In early April, UNAIDS and the Global Network of Sex Work Projects sounded the alarm on the particular hardships and concerns facing sex workers globally. They called for countries to ensure the respect, protection and fulfilment of sex workers’ human rights.

“Authorities have got to understand that we are not promoting sex work, we are promoting good health,” Ms Ngatchou said. “That’s the priority.”