Panel discussion on socio-economic challengers and access to justice

By Radhika Hettiarachchi and Paba Deshapriya

A public discussion on 'Women's Histories of Sex Work in Sri Lanka' was held on 12 December 2023, from 9.00 – 14.00 at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute, Sri Lanka.  This event was part of a series of exhibitions, workshops, trainings and public discussions working with sex workers to make their livelihoods safer, address some of the challenges that they face by amplifying their voice together with allies, to find ways to highlight and seek redress for gender based violence, and to engage the general public in a deeper understanding of sex work and sex workers in Sri Lanka. This event follows closed workshops with sex workers over a year and across Sri Lanka, that focused on health and wellbeing, legal environment and basic training on how to engage with the police as well as the legal and court systems. 

With the participation of over 50 sex workers from the north (Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu, Vavuniya), south (Anuradhapura, Moneragala, Nuwara Eliya, Kandy, Galle, Matara) and the west (Colombo, Puttalam, Katunayake), the public engagement with civil society organisations, UN agencies, media, university students and the general public began with a play about the lives of sex workers, written, acted and produced by sex workers. 

Next, through two panels discussions and Q&A, two particular aspects of women (both CIS and Trans) in sex work, the opportunities and challenges of sex work for women (both CIS and trans) as it relates to self-image, safety, security, motherhood, health, wellbeing, societal stigma and the demands of sex workers to ensure that they are able to work in safety, discussed.  

The first panel focused on the socio-economic context that form part of the reasons why women enter sex work and some of the societal and physical challenges that sex workers face when they go to work. Some of the following questions are discussed in depth - Why do women choose sex work within the informal sector of income-generation? How do they first come into sex work? What are the characteristics of a typical sex worker? What kinds of violence, particularly during times of crisis such as war are sex workers vulnerable to? Is this particularly  severe when other categories of vulnerability are added to the existing threat of being a woman in a dangerous job, such as being trans, being a ethnic or religious minority, or old age? What social safety nets are available to sex workers? What can be done to make the more dangerous parts of the informal sector, such as sex work, safer for those who work in it? 


The second panel focused on the legal environment within which sex work happens, and what needs to change to ensure the physical and psychological safety of women sex workers. Is sex work illegal? If it is not illegal per se, then what are the laws under which sex workers are arrested, held or penalized? What challenges do sex workers face when arrested? What legal recourse do they have for violence inflicted on them? What needs to change to make the lives of sex workers safer? 

Through the narratives of sex workers, this series of events hoped to create a public discourse on the need to support women sex workers to share their experiences, and change societies and to amplify their collective voice towards accessing justice and a secure working environment.