At the start of the year, it was hard to imagine the impact that COVID-19 would have on the world. Now, six months since the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic, it’s clear that the crisis is far from over and its repercussions will be felt far beyond 2020.
In May, we shared the experiences of Asociacion de Mujeres Trabajadoras Sexuales LIQUIDAMBAR as reported to NSWP through our COVID-19 Impact Survey. LIQUIDAMBAR, based in El Salvador, is an organisation that advocates for universal access to health services and speaks out about violence against sex workers. They reported that the local sex worker community had been “100% affected” by the pandemic, with reduced access to condoms and lubricants, harm reduction services, HIV treatment, and STI testing and treatment. Sex workers have been left out of El Salvador’s government support packages and LIQUIDAMBAR found that many faced increased stigma, violence, and uncertain futures.
Three months after their first report, LIQUIDAMBAR have updated NSWP on the situation in El Salvador and how things have continued to worsen for sex workers.
“We are 100% in economic and food crisis. We cannot work freely, everything is closed. There is no public transport. We do not have support from the government.”
Citizens in El Salvador have been under curfew since March, with restrictions that are only now beginning to be lifted. Since this gradual easing of lockdown, infections have increased nearly fourfold, leading to concerns for the safety of sex workers who are currently working.
“The workers are at risk of acquiring COVID-19, others have already died from the contagion and some have survived.”
At the height of the lockdown, only one person from each family was permitted to leave to get essential goods. Those who did not comply with quarantine orders could be sent to centers, where they would be required to quarantine for 30 days. LIQUIDAMBAR, however, have reported that sex workers are being detained for far longer than the 30 days, stating that “some sex workers were taken to a forced shelter for more than 55 days for engaging in sex work during quarantine.”
Sex workers in El Salvador are being forcibly detained for attempting to make a living, but are left with few options after being denied the government support packages. The overwhelming majority of sex workers in El Salvador did not receive the state bonus of $300 that was issued at the end of March. According to LIQUIDAMBAR, only 5 of over 200 sex workers registered with them had received the government support. With only uncertainty ahead, sex workers will continue to struggle to afford food, housing, and everyday essentials.
“We do not have support from the government or international cooperation.”
As well as being excluded from government support schemes, LIQUIDAMBAR also report feeling isolated from international aid, leaving sex workers in El Salvador to rely exclusively on one another to survive. LIQUIDAMBAR have been supporting the local sex worker community without any dedicated funding and only their social networks as a tool to ask for help. The organisation sourced donations from people across El Salvador but the money is not enough to give ongoing support to everyone who needs it.
LIQUIDAMBAR reported in May that sex workers had been invisibilised, with no access to healthcare unless it was related to COVID-19. Now, the organisation have detailed how this lack of access to healthcare is worsening, with sex workers being forced to use expired condoms.
Summing up the current crisis in El Salvador, LIQUIDAMBAR said:
“Currently we are not receiving any kind of help from anyone or the government. We have expenses, debts are increasing, the cost of renting our homes. We have colleagues who are HIV positive and because of the pandemic they cannot go to work. The owner of the house is demanding late rent payments and those who are in bars or on the streets, the owner has increased the charge for the room. There are almost no customers, but the collection of rent from criminals and police harassment. We are without food, without money, without access to healthcare if it is not COVID-19.”
In March, NSWP and UNAIDS called on governments to protect the health and rights of sex workers during the pandemic. Six months into the crisis, we reiterate these measures in the hopes that governments will take immediate, critical action to include sex workers in the emergency support schemes that they so far have been excluded from. Measures include:
- Access to national social protection schemes for sex workers, including income support schemes.
- An immediate firewall between health services and immigration authorities in order to ensure that migrant sex workers can access health services.
- Emergency financial support for sex workers facing destitution, particularly migrants who are unable to access residency-based financial support.
- An immediate end to evictions and access to appropriate emergency housing for homeless sex workers.
- Stopping raids on sex workers’ homes and sex work premises and ensuring that all measures to protect public health are proportionate.
- An immediate halt to arrests and prosecutions for sex work-related activity, moving away from punitive measures and criminalisation towards reaching and serving those most in need.
- An immediate end to the use of criminal law to enforce COVID-19-related restrictions, including forced COVID-19 testing and related prosecutions.
- Automatic extensions on visas due to expire as travel restrictions tighten. Immigration detention systems must support detainees in safe accommodation.
- The engagement of sex worker communities in responses—the meaningful involvement of sex worker-led organisations in emergency public health planning groups.