There is no current data to accurately indicate the number of sex workers in the country. However, a United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report published in 2014 indicated that there were between 35,000 and 47,000 female sex workers in the country. A mapping of sex workers conducted by Sri Lanka’s National STI/AIDS Control Programme in 2010 showed that 8,332 were based in Colombo. About 7,000 have been reported in Jaffna, in the Tamil-majority northern province. SWASA partner organizations are based in Colombo, Gampaha, Kurunegala, and Puttalam districts and also some areas in the North and East of the country.
Like the rest of the world, sex work in Sri Lanka is not new. The now famous bare-breasted frescoes of Sigiriya are representations of 5th century courtesans. In ‘Woolf in Ceylon: An Imperial Journey in the Shadow of Leonard Woolf 1904 -1911’ Christopher Ondaatje revisits Woolf’s ‘A Tale Told by Moonlight’ published in 1921 that includes a description of a post-Victorian sex work industry in Colombo:
Reynolds wants to feel and experience life at last, so Jessop – “I suppose the devil came into me that evening” –decides to take Reynolds to a brothel. He calls his servant to fetch two rickshaws and they bowl along dusty roads past the lake and into a red-light area with Tamil and Sinhalese girls. (This was either Slave Island or Maradana, near the Beira Lake; the Burgher girls were to be found elsewhere, on Reclamation Road.) “All the smells of the East rose up and hung heavy upon the damp hot air in the narrow streets.”
Sri Lanka, like other countries in the region, has a complex relationship with sex work which is reflected in the legal regime. Our existing regressive laws [Brothels Ordinance & Vagrancy Ordinance] continue to allow for discrimination and violation of women, men and trans people, who engage in sex work in Sri Lanka. In 2014, a sex worker was brutally beaten in the provincial town of Ratnapura by a police officer. This incident was captured on camera and went viral on social media. The furore resulted in a Supreme Court decision in 2018 that ruled the sex worker's fundamental rights were violated and ordered her to be compensated by the state. Despite this ruling, however, sex workers continue to be harassed by law enforcement agencies and performing free sexual favours remains a key strategy to avoid arrest.
In 2017, the Sri Lanka CEDAW report recommended repealing the archaic vagrancy ordinance, and in January 2020, the Colombo Fort magistrate ruled that there exist NO PROVISIONS to charge someone for working as a sex worker, underpinning a loophole that sex worker rights activists have pointed out for decades. Yet, the discourse around the rights of sex workers remains in a nascent stage. Furthermore, with the advent of HIV, and the public health discourse around key populations, sex workers became part of service delivery and prevention strategies, often designed and implemented by non-government organizations and state actors such as the Ministry of Health’s National STD/AIDS Control Programme. As potential vectors of HIV, sex workers were further stigmatized, and sex work was reduced to a high risk activity that needed to be managed, even eradicated. One startling example of this was the setting up of a sex worker led organization, with the support of UNAIDS in 2015, which contained the articles of association [in English] - “To promote programmes for evacuation female sexual labourers from the sexual labourism and refrain women from sexual labourism.” This blatant disregard for a rights-based approach, that agencies such as UNAIDS allegedly champion, is yet another example why sex workers must challenge the existing public health paradigm in Sri Lanka.
Sex workers in Sri Lanka are equal citizens. They contribute to personal and family economies. They deserve dignity and security. They deserve the opportunity to enjoy the lives to which they aspire.