First Sri Lankan Covid19 case was reported in 12th March 2020 and the country went under complete lockdown on the 23rd March until 10th of May. During this period no citizen were allowed to step out of the country making it extremely difficult for daily wage earners including sex workers. Mild restrictions on mobility were followed in the aftermath until the second wave emerged in October. Most parts of the Island include the entire western province now is under quarantine curfew until further notice.
Situation of sex workers thus far
Since the emergence of COVID 19 in Sri Lanka, sex workers have struggled on the margins of a society that continues to criminalize, discriminate and reject their fellow citizens.
In March 2020, sex workers across the world reported on increasing hardships due to COVID 19 lockdowns. Sex workers in Sri Lanka were. No different. Four key challenges that emerged include:
• Loss of income; lack of funds to pay for basic needs, including funds to support dependents.
• Increased incidents of domestic violence.
• Increased pressure to take risks while working in order to secure income.
• Victimization by Law Enforcement.
Loss of Income:
In June 2020 Economy Next Sri Lanka reported on the plight of sex workers in the Puttalam and Colombo districts detailing stories of discrimination and despondency.
“No one has so much as bought them a loaf of bread,” said Kusumalatha, recalling one incident where the neighbours of a sickly 56-year-old retired sex worker who received dry rations from PDP in late March had chastised Kusumalatha for extending her generosity to a “baduwa (slang for ‘slut’)”.
Sex workers, female, male, and Trans, most of whom who had worked hard to be independent and self-sufficient were left dependent on handouts; either provided by organizations that supported sex workers, or a well-intentioned relatively affluent public who viewed the sex worker much in the same light as other daily wage earners in the country.
Unlike other daily wage earners however, sex workers had no recourse to limited government aid packages [LKR 5000 per month per household] made available during the first lockdown period and distributed via the local government administrative system.
In addition to discrimination directed at sex workers by local government administrators- Grama Sevaka/Grama Niladari - sex workers in Sri Lanka indicated high levels of self-stigma as one of the key barriers to accessing available government relief. Furthermore, some sex workers in Sri Lanka who had left home young, those who were orphans, and some who had escaped from violent spouses, also had no form of legal identification; a prerequisite for accessing government aid. All these sex workers have therefore become dependent on the aforementioned ad hoc informal aid mechanisms cobbled together by those civil society organizations willing to support sex workers.
Domestic Violence Spike:
By the end of March Sri Lanka saw a significant rise in COVID 19 related domestic violence.
“the biggest problem above all of this is that women being attacked by their husbands while they’re at home due to the curfew. It seems like these people aren’t used to lead a family life. It is sad that they don’t use the time they have which should be spent happily.” - Pushpa Ramyani De Zoysa, Chief Nurse Accident Service, National Hospital
In August, survey findings among key populations conducted by the Care Consortium underpinned how sex workers were also subject to an increase of domestic violence during COVID 19 lockdown. Like other marginalized groups, sex workers were also at a disadvantage in accessing support services during this period.
““There is no safety net when key populations face violence because they cannot go to the police… The violence is based on their identity which is stigmatised and even the police tend not to care. For example, he said, a sex worker who gets beaten up by someone is not likely to report the incident to the police…” - Niluka Perera, CARE Consortium
Sex workers also anecdotally reported that domestic violence was often a result of their inability to earn during this period. Their partners/spouses/pimps had become dependent on their income, and in some instances forced sex workers to continue working during curfew, despite the threat of COVID 19 infection.
Increased Risk Taking:
In June 2020 a sex worker from the Puttalam District reported that she was pregnant due to having unprotected sex with a client who promised an additional LKR 500. With no access to abortion services in Sri Lanka, in September 2020, the sex worker in her early 40s underwent severe trauma due to the fetus being still born. At least one other sex worker also reported a curfew pregnancy. Sex workers also reported that during lockdown they serviced clients from the military and the police. Those sex workers who had clients within the military were reportedly allowed to move more freely to access essentials than those who had no connection to military personnel, and others reported that they received no remuneration for their services, and in some instances were forced to perform sexual favours.
Victimization by Law Enforcement:
Sex workers reported increased harassment and victimization from law enforcement during this period.
In April a sex worker in Katunayake was arrested for breaching curfew when she went to the police station to pay bail for another sex worker. She was held three days with no opportunity to seek legal assistance or to even a telephone call to her family. “They didn’t even let me call my family, while I was in the remand, I borrowed a phone from another inmate and got in touch with my family.”
In August a brothel in the Gampaha district was raided at night by male police officers and 3 women who worked there were arrested. Sex workers described how police officers entered through a window while women were sleeping, threatened the six sex workers present with arrest unless sexual favours/acts were performed. “They pointed at two girls and demanded that they went with them. But they refused.” Two of the police officers then undressed themselves and proceeded to rape those two sex workers. They then arrested three of the most timid sex workers and charged them under the brothel’s ordinance and on breaching COVID-19 regulations.
In September sex workers from Negombo was threatened by the police not to work on the street because they’re vectors of HIV. Similarly, two sex workers mentioned that they were threatened with planting drugs if the work on the street. “They can plan drugs however they want, now I am very scared to go near them. If the plant more than 2 grams of heroin I can get death sentence. So we have to be good with the police, do whatever they want, otherwise they will plant drugs on me.”
Enforcement of COVID 19 related guidelines appear to have increased instances of impunity of Sri Lanka Police.
The Presidential Task Force to build a Secure Country, Disciplined, Virtuous and Lawful Society has a strong anti - drug approach and military check points have been setup across the country to tackle the illicit drug trade in the country. Similar to the repressive approach in the Philipines, sex workers are understood to be integral to the dealing and use of drugs in Sri Lanka. Therefore, the current political environment increases the vulnerability of sex workers in terms of arbitrarily arrests, and facing cruel, degrading, inhuman treatment by law enforcement authorities and the military.
While limited interventions by the Ministry of Health have been conducted with Sri Lanka Police on the rights of sex workers, and the pitfalls of criminalization in context of the vagrancy and brothel ordinances, the majority of the Sri Lanka Police and tri-forces are unaware and/or disregard this approach. Sex workers are therefore being driven further underground and are becoming an even harder to reach vulnerable community during this COVID 19 period.
Sex Worker Rights during COVID 19 and Beyond:
Sex workers demand the right to be free from arbitrary arrests, and harassment from law enforcement and military personnel. Sex workers also have demanded viable economic alternatives to sex work, which include opportunities to be trained for other forms of livelihood that can provide for them and their families as well or better than sex work. Sex workers have also requested a better welfare mechanism than the existing CSO NGO efforts, and also more effective legal support in the event of arrests, when rights are violated, and when sex workers experience sexual violence at the hands of clients, law enforcement and military personnel.