Protecting the rights of sex workers during a pandemic

by Astha Madan Grover

 

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed many of the the pre-existing inequalities in society. It has disproportionately affected already marginalized communities that live outside societal protection mechanisms, often in financially precarious situations.  Sex workers are one such community whose rights need to be protected and respected.  Sex workers are entitled to human rights which include labour rights under the aegis of international protection frameworks.

From an International Law Perspective, the United Nations Charter (1945) obligates all UN bodies and agencies to promote and respect the “dignity and worth of the human person”, and The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979) safeguards the right of female sex workers against discrimination.  It also grants them the right to social and economic security, right to privacy, the right to work, the right to freedom from stigma and prejudice and equal protection from the law and freedom from discrimination.  Recent research by Human Rights Watch shows that the criminalisation of sex work increases the vulnerability of sex workers, because attackers perceive them as easy targets due to stigmatization by law enforcement agencies.  Criminalisation has also been found to restrict sex workers’ right to health.

Sex-worker-1

 

Issues faced by sex workers due to COVID-19

Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, sex workers are facing increased harassment and discrimination due to a lack of access to emergency social protection programmes as well as financial difficulties.  In most countries, given the criminalization of some or all aspects of sex work, the informal sector is unable to grant them benefits, such as access to national social protection schemes.  Migrant sex workers also face the risk of deportation due to lack of work permits.

Workers can also get pushed into compromising situations, where they are taken to work with clients who may not have their safety or best interests in mind.  They lower the price to attract more clients so they can support themselves.  Workers may also stay on with abusive partners to avoid homelessness.  Sex workers, who still engage with clients may contract the virus despite taking precautions such as checking for fever and taking the client’s travel history.

Many workers live in shared accommodation,  which enables the rapid spread of the virus.  Sex workers, including those working in brothels, are usually self-employed.  They receive no remuneration for the period during which they do not get work.  Workers are unable to provide for their families due to the lack of clients and may have no other employment prospects as many of them have been forced into prostitution from a young age.

The HIV epidemic is an ever-present threat to sex workers and it has now been added to by COVID-19.  HIV, though does not spread through the air and can be prevented by using protection while engaging in sexual intercourse.  HIV can also be treated through the use of antiretroviral therapy (ART).  While it does not completely cure patients, it does enable them to live long and healthy lives.

 

Measures taken worldwide to protect sex workers

Germany legalised sex work in 2002 and has over 200,000 practising sex workers.  The government ordered the closure of all brothels and other ‘non-essential’ businesses such as clubs and bars on the 14th of March.  Susanne Wilp, the spokesperson for the Association of Erotic and Sexual Services Providers, states that business has gone down by 90% and due to their lack of income, they face homelessness.  A similar fate is being faced by sex workers in Amsterdam, where sex work is also legal.

Japan has allowed sex workers to apply for governmental aid in some cases.  However, the requirements for applications are rigid and will force workers to ‘out’ themselves to their communities.  Employers are eligible for subsidies, if their employees have to stay home to care for children during school closures, and sex workers can also receive cash handouts.  (Though the requirements do not clearly state whether the handout is for those who have lost a portion of their income or those who have been dismissed entirely.)  The rigid rules require workers to show proof of income, which is difficult to show as they are usually paid under the table.  Many sex workers do not report their occupation or entire income on their tax returns due to a fear of repercussions and a sense of stigma.  Admitting non-disclosure of income could lead to its own set of consequences.

Thailand has made sex workers eligible for grants in the government’s pandemic relief package and the Malaysian government is providing housing and monthly remuneration for the homeless; most of whom are sex workers.  These workers have to hide their occupation to receive the benefits as sex work is illegal in Malaysia despite being practised widely.

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The Way Forward

Taking sex work online is one way for workers to protect themselves during the pandemic.  This is done through photos, videos, video conferencing, and phone sex.  However, this kind of work has its limitations as well.  Workers may not have the required equipment or technical know-how to facilitate work this way.  Workers with an existing base of online followers find it easier to monetize their online services.  In addition, posting online may compromise the privacy of workers who may not want to reveal the nature of their work to family and friends.  Performing online may also not be a viable solution for workers with children and families at home.  A lack of consistent internet access may also hinder the ability to perform online.  Moreover, workers earn less working online and laws are not designed to protect these workers from privacy breaches and dangerous clients they could encounter as a result of working online.

UNAIDS and the Global Network of Sex Work Projects have called on countries to take action to protect the health and human rights of sex workers.  These measures should include access to national social security schemes, unemployment benefits and financial aid, providing healthcare services to migrant sex workers, appropriating emergency housing for homeless sex workers, halting prosecution and arrests for all sex work-related activities, ending the use of criminal law, promoting COVID-19 testing and providing visa extensions to migrant sex workers.

Sex workers need more allies. Global bodies such as Amnesty International and the World Health Organisation support their demands for legalization and decriminalisation.  Sex worker rights should matter to everyone who cares about gender inequality, migration, public health or poverty.  The need to protect sex workers during this pandemic is incredibly important as they are one of the most marginalised groups in society. Sex workers must be included in the decision-making process when it comes to legislation and programmes that can impact them.  They should have the right to work safely and on their terms and this includes protection during a world-wide pandemic.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Astha Madan Grover - Photo (1)Astha is a second-year law student at the National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata.  She has a keen interest in public policy, gender law, and public health.

International Human Rights News: Focus on the impact of Coronavirus on vulnerable groups

by Pauline Canham, Lauren Ng, Bethany Webb-Strong,  Julia Kedziorek, Alana Meier, Amita Dhiman

As the world goes into lockdown to tackle COVID-19, some sectors of society are particularly at risk, not only to contracting the virus but to the very measures being put in place to protect us all.  This week we look at how the most vulnerable are being impacted by this unprecedented crisis.

The Homeless in the UK

Homeless“Stay at home.”

This plea, now an instruction, permeates through the coronavirus crisis and echoes around the United Kingdom.  But where does it leave those who do not have a home, or at least a safe home, to go back to?

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, published a report in 2019 outlining that despite being the world’s fifth largest economy, 14 million people in the UK live in poverty, with the number of rough sleepers and homeless persons having increased throughout the period of austerity.

This group is particularly vulnerable in the face of the Coronavirus pandemic.  They are more likely to suffer from poor nutrition, have unaddressed health complications and no safe place to self-isolate from other people.  With the hoarding of toilet paper, food, sanitary gels and essential medicines, they are unlikely to be able to access these essential items to protect them from the virus.  Furthermore, the closure of stores, and organisations such as gyms and public bathrooms, has led to significant disruption in support systems, and the ability to maintain hygiene standards.

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has written to local councils advising that housing must be found for all rough sleepers in order to prevent further spread of the virus.  However, the lack of clarity has resulted in many remaining without a home.  Hotels and offices are also being used to house rough sleepers, although figures of how many have been accommodated across the country have yet to emerge.

 

Those in detention

DetentionLife has ground to a global halt as many countries subject their nations to strict lockdown.  Prison settings are particularly vulnerable to the spread of the coronavirus and preventative measures are inadequate in overcrowded prisons without adequate handwashing facilities.  The World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned that prisons are unprepared and must act immediately to avoid ‘huge mortality rates’.

Without increased testing, the virus is likely to spread rapidly amongst inmates.  Those deprived of their liberty are more vulnerable to the psychological impact of severe isolation measures.  Lockdown in prisons in England and Wales bans family visits leaving inmates confined to cells for 23 hours a day.

In the United Kingdom, immigration detainees with underlying health conditions face the prospect of 3 months in solitary confinement. Detention may only be imposed where there is a realistic prospect of removal from the UK, yet many individuals cannot be returned because their countries have been devastated by the pandemic.  Legal action in the UK which argued that the Home Office has failed to protect immigration detainees led to the release of almost 300 people from detention centres earlier in March.

The psychological impact of quarantine upon children is raising concerns in the United States. Judge Dolly M Gee of the US District Court has called for the release of detained migrant children after four children tested positive in a shelter in New York.

Dr Hans Kluge, the WHO’s regional director in Europe, has called for ‘the boldest of actions’ in response: ‘we must not leave anyone behind in this fight’.

 

Indigenous people around the world

IndigenousThe CODIV-19 pandemic has proved the inadequacy of delivering equity to indigenous people, denying them access to health care.  Indigenous people are one of the most vulnerable groups because of their natural immunological vulnerability caused by civilisation diseases and poor access to clean water, suitable housing and healthcare.  Many communities in Australia receive additional soap and sanitisers supplies, but sadly this is a drop in the ocean.  The healthcare system in aboriginal communities is not equipped to cope with the pandemic and suspending non-essential medical treatments only exacerbates the situation.

In Brazil, since one medical worker from the Kokoma tribe tested positive for coronavirus, doctors became increasingly concerned about indigenous communities, because respiratory infections tend to spread quickly through tribes.  Many children suffer from anaemia, malnutrition and have lung conditions because of constant forest fires, which makes them particularly vulnerable.

Older generations also face a greater risk of death from COVID-19.  Therefore, if village elders pass away, their wisdom and social organisation will not be passed onto younger generations which may lead to the disappearance of their culture.

Many indigenous people have decided to isolate themselves either within their communities, or out in nature.  Once again, this vulnerable group cannot expect any sufficient external support because as Marlene Poitras, Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief for Alberta, states; they have never been a priority.

 

Women

female_nurseAs the COVID-19 pandemic continues, both highlighting and deepening pre-existing social and economic inequalities, it is important to acknowledge the disproportionate burdens that are being placed upon women.  As Maria Holsberg, humanitarian and disaster risk advisor at the UN Women Asia and Pacific stated, “Crisis always exacerbates gender inequality.”

Foremost, women are a large majority of those working on the front lines of the COVID response. According to the World Health Organization, 70% of workers in the health and social sector are women.  Women also comprise the majority in sectors being hit the hardest economically including precarious work and jobs within the service sector.  For example, a quarter of women across the EU fill roles that go unpaid if they don’t work.

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Boniol et al. (2019)

Additionally, with school closures impacting 91% of the world’s students, childcare is moving from the paid economy of schools and nurseries to the unpaid one.  Older relatives ‘social-distancing’ also are now in need of additional care and support.  This shines light on the ‘care crisis’ as these types of unpaid care will fall most heavily on women, thus limiting their work and economic opportunities.  Some countries like Australia are compensating for this by making childcare services ‘fee-free’ for families, despite potentially disastrous impacts for care centres.

Policies and public health responses must account for the sex and gendered effects and experiences of the outbreak.  A gender analysis approach is needed to address coronavirus concerns – an approach that includes sex-disaggregated data, recognising the crucial role that woman must play in the decision-making process.

Finally, the toll of the lockdown on women suffering from domestic abuse came to light this week after a survey of organisations that help domestic abuse victims revealed a dramatic increase in cases.  The UN Chief, Antonio Guterres is calling for urgent action to address the surge.

https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/04/1061052

 

Children

ChildrenThe WHO has established that only a very small proportion of children have contracted coronavirus but the crisis is impacting children in a variety of other ways.  In an effort to ‘flatten the curve’, some states have imposed severe restrictions on some vulnerable groups, including children.

In the Philippines, authorities have resorted to barbaric acts such as confining children inside coffins and cages if found in violation of the covid-19 regulations. In some cases, mothers have been arrested for violating the regulations.  Human Rights Watch officials said the locking up of children would increase the transmission of the disease and the government must prioritize the right to health, while respecting the human rights of all their citizens.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the government imposed a blanket ban on children and the elderly from leaving their houses, issuing fines for violations.  An exception was made only for children with disabilities, who are allowed to take a walk with their parents within 50 to 100 metres of the house. Activists said that though restrictions on some rights during the Covid-19 pandemic are justified, they need to be backed with proper evidence and be non-discriminatory in nature.

Due to the closure of schools, UNESCO has recommended that states  ‘adopt a variety of hi-tech, low-tech and no tech solutions to assure the continuity of learning’. Governments must adopt measures for the challenges faced due to this sudden loss of schooling.

 

 

Other stories making the news around the world

International

Africa

Asia

South and South-east Asia

Australasia

Europe

Middle East

North America

Latin America

You Can’t Fail Gender: A Comment on the Trial of Caster Semenya.

By Patricia Palacios Zuloaga 

I love to watch Caster Semenya run. As an avid fan of athletics I appreciate her flawless style; how at 500 metres, when the rest of the athletes can no longer conceal the pain of the lactic acid burn, Semenya begins to glide past them all, shoulders back, head high, powering home. I feel the hairs on my arms and my neck stand to attention and a grin spreads across my face. But it would be untruthful of me to suggest that my enjoyment is purely a matter of technique; to watch Caster Semenya run is to experience a thrilling transgression of the rigid power structures that govern our experience of race and gender. That is why I have little doubt that the new rules on gender eligibility recently published by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) are nothing less than a targeted strike against Semenya herself.

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Bridging the gender digital divide from a human rights perspective

By Krisztina Huszti-Orban & Amy Dickens

This week, the United Nations Human Rights Council will discuss a report prepared by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on ways to bridge the gender digital divide from a human rights perspective.

The Human Rights, Big Data, and Technology Project submitted information to the OHCHR outlining the conditions contributing to the development of the gender digital divide, its negative impact on women’s human rights, and how human rights can contribute to addressing this divide. This post summarises the key components of our submission, focusing on impediments to access and effective use of technology by women. Continue reading