Sex workers in Africa are among the communities suffering the most due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as lockdowns and police crackdowns leave millions without income. Sex workers have always been vulnerable to violence and infectious diseases such as HIV, but COVID-19 has increased those risks.
“With the government shutting down bars and nightclubs, most sex workers don’t have money to buy food, pay their rent or get basic medicines for themselves and their children,” said Peninah Mwangi, Executive Director of the Bar Hostess Empowerment and Support Programme (BHESP), Kenya oldest sex workers’ organization. “The situation is desperate.”
Peninah said disruptions in condom distribution and outreach prevention programs by peers in homes and streets are leaving sex workers more exposed to contracting HIV, putting at risk the progress made against the disease in recent years. Price hikes on public transport linked to COVID-19 restrictions are making access to anti-retroviral drugs harder.
Peninah, whose organization has 10,000 members in Nairobi, said many sex workers are working in unsafe brothels out of necessity, where they are exposed to violence. She said payments for sex work have gone down 75 percent since the beginning of the crisis, further compounding a dire situation. Many sex workers have been forced to return to their villages, where they are facing stigma and family condemnation.
“Girls are more afraid of dying of hunger than of COVID-19. Prevention is not a priority for many sex workers right now. COVID-19 will have a big impact on HIV.”
BHESP, which is supported by the Global Fund, has undertaken many initiatives to alleviate the challenges faced by sex workers, including engaging with local authorities to obtain food packages and hygiene kits. The group is helping sex workers pay rent and is raising awareness and doing advocacy among the police to stop them from detaining sex workers and putting them under forced quarantine. Many sex workers are too scared to go to health clinics for fear of harassment.
Peninah, a former chair of the African Sex Workers Alliance, said the COVID-19 pandemic is exposing similar problems of inequality across Africa, where sex workers and other groups who are criminalized and marginalized live in precarious health and economic situations, with little social protection.