NSWP are conducting a survey to monitor and report on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on sex workers and sex worker organisations and their communities.
We are sharing the stories and experiences of organisations from around the world, as reported to us, in order to gain an insight into what governments are doing – and not doing – to support sex workers and sex worker organisations and how the sex worker community are responding to the crisis.
Bangladesh, like many other countries across the globe, is in the midst of a complete lockdown to contain the spread of coronavirus. This lockdown has meant that sex workers are out of work and struggling to survive.
“A quick and simple survey done by HARC found that almost all of the sex workers in Bangladesh have lost their incomes at the moment.” HIV/AIDS Research and Welfare Centre (HARC) reported their experiences to NSWP through the COVID-19 impact survey.
“It is estimated that there are over 140,000 active FSW in Bangladesh, working primarily in the streets and or out of homes and hotels. This pandemic is not only leaving them with a serious shortage in financial resources for their basic needs, but also causing psychological implications, as they fear for their next meal.”
It has been widely reported that the government of Bangladesh has started sending emergency food and aid to women working in the country’s commercial sex industry, but as HARC points out, this aid has not reached all those in need and, when it has, it is not enough.
“Hotel and residence-based sex workers mentioned that they are at the greatest crisis of their lives with no one to assist them. Since they don’t match the criteria of being a poor family, the government also do not help them at this time of need. On the other hand, some street-based sex workers received relief from government but that is not enough for them.”
In addition to the lack of income and support during the lockdown, HARC have reported on the reduced access to essential health services and commodities such as condoms and lubricants, harm reduction services, and STI testing and treatment.
One of the very first actions that the government of Bangladesh undertook to combat the spread of COVID-19 was a complete lockdown of the country’s brothels, meaning that sex workers have been affected for longer than the general population. Despite this clear choice to target sex workers in the response to the virus, the targeted support for sex workers, according to HARC, has yet to come.
“HARC experiences that only sex workers are thinking about sex workers without stigma and discrimination. So, only sex workers organizations can support sex workers and more support needed to sex workers organization. Non-sex workers will not support sex workers in this crisis period.”
As in many other countries around the world, a lack of clear government response for supporting sex workers has meant that the sex worker community have rallied to support their own. HARC are supporting the community in this period of crisis by distributing food to sex workers identified as being most at need.
“The management committee decided that right now food is necessary for survival, therefore distribution of food is the priority. The management prepared a guideline to put together a package of food containing 10 kg rice, 1 kg lentils, 3 kg potatoes, 2 kg onion, 1-liter soybean oil, 1 kg salt, 2 masks, and 2 hand wash soaps for each sex worker. HARC has done a mapping and listed 3,500 sex workers at need. HARC is distributing by rickshaw pullers to take the packages from the HARC office to the living places of those sex workers. One outreach worker always with rickshaw to ensure delivery to the right people. HARC is distributing 300 packages per-week to 300 sex workers. The outreach workers is using PPE for their protection against the virus.”