Guyana Sex Work Coalition supports sex workers on the edge during COVID-19

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UNAIDS

UNAIDS have drawn attention to the Guyana Sex Work Coalition’s work supporting the sex work community during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Miriam Edwards, the Executive Director of the Guyana Sex Work Coalition, spoke to UNAIDS about the devastating changes that the current crisis has brought to the flow of life for sex workers in Guyana, and what her organisation is doing to help.

“Because of the curfew they are not able to work. Plus the children are home full time. They (the sex workers) can’t make any moves. Some are able to look (work) for money, but in doing so they take more risk. Workshops are not their first priority,” Ms Edwards says plainly. “Their main need is food and sanitization.”

The complications around sex work in Guyana have deepened since COVID-19. At a time when many locals are out of work, migrants have been particularly affected by joblessness. More of them are exchanging sex for money to survive.

According to a recent Response for Venezuelans (R4V) report by UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration, there have been more reports of sex workers facing eviction or being at risk due to job loss.

Meanwhile, many Guyanese sex workers have found it difficult to access the social support provided for formal-sector workers by the government.

“The problem is that many in authority don’t see sex work as work,” Ms Edwards said.

The Guyana Sex Work Coalition’s strategy has been to pair the distribution of nutrition support and hygiene supplies with offers of HIV testing and safety reminders on COVID-19, HIV and sexually transmitted infections. According to Ms Edwards, this is a time of high stress and uncertainty and her clients are not necessarily able to absorb mass media messages. Text reminders and phone calls have been key approaches to ensuring that individual sex workers are informed and to address their unique challenges. Sometimes they need medication or money for transport. Many of the migrants need a safe space.

UNAIDS is embarking on a project with the Caribbean Sex Work Coalition to help national networks address sex workers’ knowledge, HIV prevention and social support needs during COVID-19.  A major goal of the project is region-wide advocacy to encourage Caribbean governments to include sex workers in their planning and protection.

“Sex workers need to be included in national social protection schemes and many of them need emergency financial support,” said James Guwani, Director of the UNAIDS Caribbean Sub-Regional Office. “To win the battle against COVID-19 or HIV, we must give life to the principle of leaving no one behind.”