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Vulnerability mapping to help sex workers in Bangladesh and Myanmar

Originally published by UNAIDS, Asia Pacific

Warm smiles greet Lily as she approaches her first stop of the day—one of the 11 brothels scattered across the country that Lily, the President of the Bangladesh Sex Worker Network, visits quarterly to check in with the women and see what assistance they need. Though her visits have been limited in recent months due to movement restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19, Lily knows well enough that those smiles are a brave front for the troubling times that her peers have experienced.

“I see the sex workers as my sisters—I feel their happiness and pain and I try my best to solve any issue they face,” Lily said. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Lily and the 29 community-based organizations serving sex workers in the country have struggled to respond to the increased calls for support. In March, government countrywide movement restrictions meant that sex workers could no longer have clients, leaving most of them without a source of income and unable to provide for themselves or their families.

“Sex workers’ children faced challenges during the COVID situation because their mothers couldn’t arrange to provide them with food. When we [the Bangladesh Sex Worker Network] learned about this issue, we reached out to many organizations and the private sector for assistance,” explained Lily. Responding to the call to action, the network mobilized funds to support 2100 sex workers across the country. Community-led support in Bangladesh has also garnered global recognition. Most recently, a former sex worker, Rina Akter, was recognized by the BBC for her efforts, and those of her team of helpers, to serve 400 meals a week to sex workers in need.

“While a few sex workers had savings, most could not provide for themselves,” said Rahat Ara Nur, Technical Officer for the United Nations Population Fund in Bangladesh. “Through the United Nations Population Fund, we provided sex workers with COVID-19 prevention commodities, such as masks and handwashing materials, and we also developed public service announcements which were aired on community radio to ensure we raised awareness about COVID-19 precautionary measures among the community."

With the closure of entertainment venues, a classification that includes brothels, some sex workers have resorted to street-based sex work, which increases the risk of violence, condom-less sex and no pay or low pay.

Sex workers are also experiencing increasing vulnerability to gender-based violence. Without a source of income, conflicts about finances arise, and sex worker networks report that their members have experienced abuse at the hands of their spouses, partners and brothel owners.

Some sex workers report that they have become homeless because the brothels have been closed, or in some cases the residents were evicted because rent could not be paid. Many sex workers cite stigma and discrimination as a barrier for other forms of employment. Health outreach services that once provided brothels with sexual and reproductive health services, including HIV testing and prevention, have been suspended due to travel restrictions.

Bangladesh, October 2019. Credit: UNFPA Bangladesh/Naymuzzaman Prince

These developments are not unique to Bangladesh, however. Throughout the Asia–Pacific region, national and regional networks of sex workers are reporting that the COVID-19 outbreak has exacerbated the inequalities faced by sex workers, and many are either not eligible or excluded from social protection services.

“There is no government support specifically targeting sex workers. There is support for the general public, particularly those that are low income, but sex workers are not eligible for these social protections because they work in the informal economy,” said Hnin Hnin Yu, the Chairperson of Sex Workers in Myanmar (SWiM), a nongovernmental advocacy group for sex workers’ rights.

Additionally, many sex workers are migrants (international or internal) and lack the necessary papers or registration with local authorities to access the government’s support. Eligibility criteria for social support, such as documentation of income, proof of residence, national identification, contribution to existing social protection schemes and filing taxes, are all reasons given for excluding sex workers from government support. An online consultation of female sex workers from across the country, organized by UNAIDS and SWiM, revealed that apart from limited funds from humanitarian actors, none of the sex workers had received social support.

“When Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria assistance for COVID-19 was allocated, funds for people living with HIV included the most vulnerable sex workers to receive food provisions,” said Mr Myo, Community Support Adviser for UNAIDS in Myanmar. “However, we recognized that this was an ad hoc solution that reached a small portion of the vulnerable population and there is a need for more sustainable support, such as social protection, for sex workers.”

It has become clear that focused support for sex workers must be prioritized. Recognizing that more needs to be known about the gaps in social protection for sex workers, UNAIDS in collaboration with the United Nations Population Fund and the World Food Programme are exploring the possibility of conducting a needs assessment and vulnerability mapping initiative of female sex workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Data from the community-led mapping initiative will be used to inform programming for livelihood support, food security, improved access to antiretroviral therapy, sexual and reproductive health services and gender-based violence prevention and response services.

Commenting on the prospects of the United Nations agencies joining forces to coordinate a vulnerability mapping exercise with sex worker networks, Ms Nur expressed excitement about how this advocacy tool will not only help to identify the challenges that sex workers face during the COVID-19 outbreak, but it would also catalyse further work to mobilize resources for programmes and address injustices that pre-date the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hnin Hnin Yu cites discrimination and harassment from police as a long-standing challenge facing sex workers’ rights. During the COVID-19 outbreak, communities have reported increased police surveillance, harassment, including physical violence, and demands to pay fees to conduct sex work. In response, SWiM provides community-led, peer-to-peer legal aid for sex workers who have been arrested, educating them about their rights.

For those working closely with community-led organizations it has been inspiring to see that although sex worker networks and the sex workers they represent have seen challenges all around them, they have done their best to support their peers. There is hope that the data gathered in a vulnerability mapping exercise would not only generate the evidence needed to advocate for expanding the reach of social protection and humanitarian response services to be inclusive of sex workers but could also inform the scale-up of community-led programming.