Sex workers are the worst hit by the covid pandemic
Some may see it as a blessing in disguise. Like all other daily wage earners, sex workers too have been out of work with the onset of COVID-19 in Sri Lanka since early March.
But for the thousands of those engaged in sex work, there is no telling when or if ever they would be able to carry on with their profession as before.
As the country limps back to normalcy, and citizens are required to follow the ‘no touching, and one-metre social distance’ guidelines issued by the Health Ministry, almost all others will be able to adhere to the do’s and don’ts and get back to their respective trades.
But, what about the estimated 40,000 sex workers?
Unlike popular belief that those in this profession do so willingly and that they enjoy the work, a majority of the workers have chosen this option as a way out of poverty. (Of course, some have consciously picked sex work as a career choice, and their choice must be respected.)
But the driving force for a larger number of sex workers, it is a choice made to fight the daily battle of feeding their families.
A situation that the spread of COVID-19 has compounded.
A coordinator at an organisation that assists such marginalised groups by providing advice and connecting them to public health services says these are not ‘sex workers but sex labourers.’
“They are not in it for pleasure or because they like it, but because they have no other way of making ends meet,” the official said.
"Even if their husbands are working, they contribute little or nothing to the family’s upkeep, usually spending their earnings on liquor or drugs, compelling their wives to sell their bodies to keep the children from starving"
“Even if their husbands are working, they contribute little or nothing to the family’s upkeep, usually spending their earnings on liquor or drugs, compelling their wives to sell their bodies to keep the children
The Coronavirus not only snatched away their ability to earn a living, but it also meant more incidents of domestic violence. Deprived of money to buy their daily shot or drugs, men took it out on the women.
Alas! It is always the women who are punished. Many such women in the Puttalam area, for instance, spent their days at the drop-in centre provided by this organisation for those needing shelter from violence.
Of course, many of these workers are also physically harassed by their clients.
There are also a large number of sex workers who are single parents and many are unaware that they do not have to produce a marriage certificate to register the birth of their children. Unless they get help from individuals or organisations working with the marginalised, these children live out their lives without a birth certificate, which means they are denied access to many facilities such as education.
‘Often we help them get the birth certificates, but a large number of such children never get an education,’ she said.
"The Coronavirus not only snatched away their ability to earn a living, but it also meant more incidents of domestic violence. Deprived of money to buy their daily shot or drugs, men took it out on the women"
“The result is that the girls join their mothers in the sex trade while the boys get involved in various criminal activities,” she said.
Many operating in the urban areas are also those, who, having been duped by tempting offers of employment, leave their homes in rural areas to travel to unfamiliar cities, only to find that the promised job is not quite what it was described as. Then some find themselves pregnant and abandoned by their partners.
Take a look at the many advertisements in the advert pages in the newspapers, or even the internet and you will find hundreds of adverts by massage parlours. Though not explicitly stated, many also offer sexual favours as part of the package. Here again, most of those working in these parlours are those who have arrived in Colombo or other cities from distant places.
"A coordinator at an organisation that assists such marginalised groups by providing advice and connecting them to public health services says these are not ‘sex workers but sex labourers"
Though sex work is looked down upon by society, most of today’s youth do not feel so restricted. Many have learnt to interact with clients through smartphones instead of standing at street corners to ply their trade.
Despite all this, the fact remains that a vast number of those who have been working in the trade are now left high and dry with no income owing to health risks posed by COVID-19, and will need assistance finding alternate employment. Some may throw caution in the air and continue in the trade; after all, keeping their children fed and clothed will be more important than their health.
Ever since the outbreak in the country, many non-profit organisations and community groups have been looking after the needs of these people, providing food and other essentials to keep body and soul together. With no fixed abode to prove residency, or simply because they are not registered with the system, a majority of these workers had been overlooked when the government provided financial assistance to those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Avanka Lanka believes, that this is a golden opportunity for society to come together in finding alternate employment, or providing job skill training and pave the way for sex workers and their families to make poverty a thing of their past. However, we need to keep in mind, that whatever alternate employment offered should be something that would bring them an income close to or equivalent to what they earn as sex workers.
Sex workers must be motivated to move out of that trade and take up a profession that is more secure in terms of finances and their health. Therefore, they must be offered well thought out programmes that would bring in a good income.
More importantly, it is time they are accepted by society as human beings with equal rights, like everyone else.
Let’s start to think to look at things differently in the New normal.