Warm smiles greet Lily as she approaches her first stop for the day. It is one of the 11 brothels scattered across the country that Lily, the President of the Bangladesh Sex Worker Network, visits quarterly to check in with the women and see what assistance they require. Though her visits have been limited in recent months due to movement restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19, Lily knows well enough that those smiles are a brave front for the troubling times that her peers have confronted.

“I see the sex workers as my sisters – I feel their happiness and pain and I try my best to solve any issue they face,” says Lily. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Lily and the 29 community-based organizations serving the sex workers have been strained to respond to the increased calls for support. In March, government-issued countrywide movement restrictions meant that there would no longer be clients for sex workers, rendering most of them without a source of income and unable to provide for themselves or their families.

“Sex workers’ children faced challenges during the COVID situation because their mothers couldn’t arrange to provide them with food. When we [the Bangladesh Sex Worker Network] learned about this issue, we reached out to many organizations and the private sector for assistance,” explains Lily. Responding to the call to action, the network mobilized funds to support 2,100 sex workers across the country. Community-led support in Bangladesh has also garnered global recognition. Most recently, a former sex worker, Rina Akter was recognized by the BBC for her efforts, and those  of her team of helpers, to serve 400 meals a week to sex workers in need. 

“While a few sex workers had savings, most could not provide for themselves,” says Dr. Rahat Ara Nur, Technical Officer for the United Nations Population Fund in Bangladesh. “Through UNFPA, we provided sex workers with COVID prevention commodities, such as masks and handwashing materials, and we also developed public service announcements which were aired on community radio to ensure we raised awareness about COVID-19 precautionary measures among the community.” 

With the closure of ‘entertainment’ venues, a classification that includes  brothels, some sex workers have resorted to street-based sex work which increases risks of violence, group sex, condom-less sex, no pay or low pay.

Sex workers are also experiencing increasing degrees of vulnerability to gender-based violence. Without a source of income, conflicts about finances arise, and sex worker networks report that their members have experienced abuse at the hands of their spouses, partners and brothel owners.

Some sex workers report that they have become homeless because the brothels have been closed, or in some cases, the residents were evicted because rent could not be paid. Many sex workers cite stigma and discrimination as a barrier for other forms of employment. Health outreach services that once provided brothels with sexual and reproductive health services, including HIV testing and prevention, have been suspended due to travel restrictions.

These developments are not unique to Bangladesh, however. Throughout Asia-Pacific, national and regional networks of sex workers are reporting that the COVID-19 outbreak has exacerbated the inequalities faced by sex workers, and many are either not eligible or excluded from social protection services.

“There is no government support specifically targeting sex workers. There is support for the general public, particularly those that are low income, but sex workers are not eligible for these social protections because they work in the informal economy,” says Hnin Hnin Yu, Chairperson for the  Sex Workers in Myanmar (SWiM), a non-governmental advocacy group for sex workers’ rights.

Additionally, many sex workers are migrants (international or internal) and lack the necessary papers or registration with local authorities to access the government support. Eligibility criteria for social support such as documentation of income, proof of residence, national identification, contribution to existing social protection schemes and filing taxes are all reasons given for excluding sex workers from government support. An online consultation of female sex workers from across the country, organized by UNAIDS and SWiM, revealed that apart from limited funds from humanitarian actors, none of the sex workers had received social support.

“When Global Fund assistance for COVID-19 was allocated, funds for people living with HIV included the most vulnerable sex workers to receive food provisions” says Dr Myo, Community Support Adviser for UNAIDS Myanmar. “However, we recognized that this was an ad-hoc solution that reached a small portion of the vulnerable population and there is a need for more sustainable support, such as social protections, for sex workers who are facing socioeconomic impact of the pandemic.”

It has become clear that targeted support for sex workers must be prioritized. Recognizing that more needs to be known about the gaps in social protections for sex workers, UNAIDS in collaboration with UNFPA and the World Food Programme (WFP) are exploring the possibility to conduct a needs assessment and vulnerability mapping initiative of female sex workers during COVID-19. Data from the community-led mapping initiative will be used to inform programming for livelihoods support, food security, improved access to antiretrovirals (ARVs), sexual and reproductive health services and gender-based violence (GBV) prevention and response services. 

Commenting on the prospects of the UN agencies joining forces to coordinate a vulnerability mapping exercise with sex worker networks, Dr. Nur expressed excitement about how this advocacy tool will not only help to identify challenges sex workers face during the COVID-19 outbreak, but it would also catalyze further work to mobilize resources for interventions and address injustices that pre-date the COVID-19 pandemic.

For example, Hnin Hnin Yu cites discrimination and harassment from police as a long-standing challenge facing sex workers’ rights. During the COVID-19 outbreak, communities have reported increased police surveillance, harassment, including physical violence, and demands to pay fees to conduct sex work. In response, SWiM provides community-led, peer-to-peer legal aid for sex workers that have been arrested, educating them of their rights.

For those working closely with community-led organizations it has been inspiring to see that despite very difficult situations, sex worker networks and the sex workers they represent, saw challenges all around them, but they have done their best to support their peers. There is much hope that the data gathered in a vulnerability mapping not only would generate the evidence needed to advocate for expanding the reach of social protections and humanitarian response services to be inclusive of sex workers, but it could also inform the scale-up of community-led programming.

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