Sri Lanka’s sex workers struggle to get by as COVID-19 brings industry to a halt
ECONOMYNEXT – Kumari is a 45-year-old mother of four living in Puttalam, Sri Lanka. She is a sex worker by trade. Today, with life brought to a virtual standstill by a global pandemic and with strict social distancing rules still in place in the absence of a verified vaccine, sex work has become prohibitively impractical and Kumari has no choice but to look for alternative avenues of income. COVID-19 has forced her to find temporary work in a coconut estate, tending to coconut saplings and clearing out the undergrowth, just to survive. Her meagre earnings – a far cry from what she made on the streets, pre-pandemic – buy her a couple of bowls of kola kenda (a local herbal porridge) a day. A full meal has proved a luxury, new clothes a distant dream.
Three of Kumari’s children are married. They know what her now-destitute mother used to do for a living, and have refused to take her in. The youngest child is in the care of extended family who are blissfully unaware of her real livelihood. Given the widespread stigma in Sri Lanka surrounding sex work, it is not surprising that Kumari has opted not to tell them the truth for the sake of her daughter. Reports of children of sex workers suffering emotional abuse at the hands of relatives abound.
Puttalam, a moderately populated district in the island’s northwest, was under round-the-clock police curfew for 52 days straight since Sri Lanka went into lockdown in mid March. To say that the mostly street-based sex workers of Puttalam have fallen on hard times as a result would be a gross understatement, according to one social worker who has been concerned with their welfare for some years.
Indrani Kusumalatha, Director of Praja Diriya Padanama (PDP), a non-governmental organisation based in Puttalam, told EconomyNext that since the arrival of the novel coronavirus, sex workers in the district have barely eaten.
“These women have no food, no clothes, and no hope for future employment prospects. Even if they do return to sex work, they don’t have the knowledge nor the capacity to do it safely in the current pandemic environment,” she said.
Before the public health crisis hit, some 20 street sex workers identified by PDP in Puttalam – aged between 30 and 50 – made anywhere from Rs 500 to Rs 5,000 a night. They all worked tirelessly, nearly every day of the week. On March 18, the day that curfew was first imposed, everything came to a halt, and the women haven’t made a rupee since. Many of them are single mothers with several children each and therefore struggled to save any money; and the ones who didn’t have many obligations, said Kusumalatha, lacked the financial literacy needed to manage their income. Needless to say, the pandemic dealt a severe blow to them all.
“No one has so much as bought them a loaf of bread,” said Kusumalatha, recalling one incident where the neighbours of a sickly 56-year-old retired sex worker who received dry rations from PDP in late March had chastised Kusumalatha for extending her generosity to a “baduwa (slang for ‘slut’)”.
A decent meal is the least of their worries. According to Kusumalatha, there has been a surge in domestic violence and harassment faced by sex workers since the district went into lockdown. Underemployed husbands or abusive partners who depend on these women financially, she said, have taken to beating them up for not giving them the money to purchase [often illicit] alcohol.
Unable and unwilling to go back to their unsympathetic families – some have no families to go back to – the desperate sex workers of Puttalam have no one to turn to. Dry rations and other aid provided by the likes of PDP can only get them so far, and activists worry that in the current economic climate, things will get worse – much worse – before they get better.
The situation is no less dire in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s commercial capital. Amali Perera, a spokesperson for Abhimani Women’s Collective, a Colombo-based NGO working with street-based sex workers shared its experiences with EconomyNext.
“Street sex workers were finding it difficult to go out at night since last year’s Easter Sunday attacks. Just as that situation was getting better, this pandemic hit them and it hit them hard,” she said.
According to Perera, street sex workers in Colombo charge Rs 1,000 to Rs 1,500 from a client, with the client usually paying for the room. The higher-end ones may charge up to Rs 6,000 a session. Like in Puttalam, sex workers in Colombo too work hard throughout the week. Like in Puttalam, these women too haven’t seen a rupee since March 18.
Through the goodwill of a generous donor, Abhimani has helped some 15 sex workers who are really struggling to get by (many of them single mothers), but for a vast majority of these women, even as the country is gradually easing lockdown measures in an attempt to return to normality, things are far from looking up.
“I speak to them whenever I see them on the road, and they tell me they have nothing to eat. I know one whose son is in university. He has no idea how his mother has been paying for his education all this time,” said Perera.
“These women are desperate, and they have been abandoned by their brokers and lodge-owners because they’re not bringing them any money anymore,” she added.
Transgender sex workers are particularly vulnerable.
“Everybody looks at them with suspicion. Nobody approaches them with help. Not even [cisgender] women look at them kindly. In fact, they treat them with no dignity,” Perera told EconomyNext.
In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, sex workers in some countries have moved their business online, offering phone/video sex via Skype and other apps. This is not an option for many sex workers in Sri Lanka, according to Perera, as only a handful have the resources and are technologically savvy enough to sustain such an enterprise. However, some high-end sex workers in Colombo who had already been advertising their services on websites pre-pandemic have switched semi-permnantly to online sex in exchange for credit card payments or mobile cash transfers that are facilitated by local telecos.
Meanwhile, the rest struggle to make ends meet. Both Perera and Kusumalatha told EconomyNext that some of the sex workers did not receive the Rs 5,000 allowance paid by the government to daily wage earners as they did not have permanent addresses nor had their names in the electoral register.
“Until a vaccine or treatment is found, I don’t think this industry will ever go back to normal,” said Perera, adding that in the absence of a viable economic alternative, sex workers will have no income whatsoever in the foreseeable future – an alarming prospect indeed, given the ubiquity of sex work in Sri Lanka as a profession, Victorian era cultural taboos notwithstanding.
A United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report in 2014 indicated 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.
‘Sex work is widespread in Sri Lanka, and takes place in formal sex work establishments, spas, massage centres, private residencies and hotels, as well as informally through street-based sex work, mobile phones/call out services and the internet,’ a 2017 Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) submission noted.
Pandemic or not, any effort to assist sex workers in Sri Lanka is immediately complicated by the fact that its legality as a profession is vague, at best, to say nothing of the social stigma that defines it. Street sex workers are usually arrested by police under provisions in the Vagrants Ordinance of 1841. This archaic law allows police to arrest without warrant ‘every common prostitute wandering in the public street or highway, or in any place of public resort, and behaving in a riotous or indecent manner’ with a punishment of 14 days imprisonment and/or fine. Section 9 of the Vagrants Ordinance, meanwhile, has made it a crime to live off the earnings of prostitution.
Another law that’s frequently used against sex workers is Section 360A of the Penal Code as Amended by Act No 22 of 1995 which criminalises ‘procuring or attempting to procure a male or female, of any age, with or without their consent from Sri Lanka or outside for prostitution, or as an inmate of a brothel.’
Additionally, the Convention on Preventing and Combating Trafficking in Women and Children for Prostitution Act 2005 defines trafficking as ‘moving, selling or buying of women and children for prostitution within and outside the country for monetary or other considerations with or without the consent of the person being subjected to trafficking.’
In a historic court decision, a Colombo Fort magistrate in February acquitted a woman arrested in a brothel on charges of prostitution, declaring that it was not considered an offence in Sri Lanka for a woman to earn a living through prostitution although it is an offence to operate a brothel. Though the unprecedented ruling was celebrated by activists everywhere, in the eyes of many ordinary Sri Lankans – including some workers themselves – sex work remains a crime.
Manika Deshapriya of Bakamoono.lk, an initiative affiliated with the Grassrooted Trust that works in sexual and reproductive health education in Sri Lanka, told EconomyNext that despite the odds stacked heavily against it – legally, culturally and now with the added obstacle of a deadly pandemic threatening to stop it in its tracks – sex work will continue.
People in the industry who have been pushed to desperation under the present circumstances are willing to risk infection to feed their families, she said.
“Police have asked street sex workers not to go out, but we have to ask how realistic that is. These people don’t want to die of hunger; they have to support their families. They have medical needs; some of them are pregnant; some have infants; others have elderly parents. It’s a whole ecosystem that encompasses factors like health, education, child nutrition etc. If their livelihood is affected, that entire ecosystem is affected,” said Deshapriya.
Acknowledging that the risk of COVID-19 infection is likely greater for sex workers than for most, the activist questioned the guidelines issued to sex workers islandwide as the number of confirmed cases began to grow. (One sex worker in Colombo that was suspected of being infected later tested negative). For example, regional sex worker groups have been instructed not to engage in mouth-to-mouth contact.
“You have to look at it from the sex worker’s point of view because, sex work being an illegal industry, they don’t have that bargaining power when it comes to their employment. It’s always the customer that has that power. So no matter the guidelines we provide, it comes down to their agency at the time of sex. If the client demands mouth to mouth for Rs 200 more, they’re going to do it, especially in these times,” she said.
According to Deshapriya, sex workers have long been employed by the government as part of the national HIV response to promote safe sex practices among the community. Though they receive government salaries as part of these campaigns, she said, their situation has not changed, and the stigma has certainly not changed. Similarly, health authorities will make sex workers part of the official response to the novel coronavirus to educate the community, but once the threat of the virus has subsided, the fate of the sex workers will remain the same.
Deshapriya is also sceptical of alternative forms of employment being suggested to sex workers by those sympathetic to them, well-intentioned though they may be.
“A lot of people have spoken to me about opening small businesses or giving them jobs, but it’s not that simple. You can’t just take a sex worker out of the industry and give her a candle-making or basket weaving job. For one thing, what you earn from sex work is far greater. There’s also a certain lifestyle associated with the job and networks they have built up. If you tell a bartender that alcohol is bad for you and give him an admin job, he’s going to be miserable,” she said.
“It’s not enough to pull sex workers out of the industry and give them “better” alternatives that might not actually be better for them. We never ask them what they want,” she added.
Like Kusumalatha and Perera, Deshapriya does not believe that a majority of Sri Lanka’s street sex workers will adapt and switch to online sex, even if a few high-end ones with the resources might experiment with it. Nor does she believe that sex workers should – or could – be forced out of the industry, no matter how bad things get.
Judging by the UNFPA-UNDP numbers, paid sex is in high demand in Sri Lanka, and even if it has dipped significantly at the moment, it will likely bounce back to pre-COVID numbers once the the pandemic has been brought under control – although, it is unclear how long that will take and how much of an impact social distancing measures will have on the industry in the long run.
“I think in Sri Lanka it will continue as it is. Even if a sex worker died from COVID-19, most would have a ‘who cares’ attitude. They would say she was asking for it, that she was an immoral person who did not deserve to live anyway. Sex workers themselves won’t give up, I think. Everybody feels the pangs of hunger. When the kids are crying and there’s no food on the table, you have to do something. It’s not unlike how middle class people stood in queues for hours to get their groceries. It applies to everybody. The need to eat and feed your family is universal,” said Deshapriya. (Colombo/Jun9/2020)
Some names have been changed.