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Sex Workers Struggle to Survive Covid-19 Pandemic

Criminalization Makes a Bad Situation Worse

The narrow streets and alleys of Amsterdam's famed Red Light District, normally packed with tourists, seen largely deserted, March 16, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/Peter Dejong

Covid-19 presents a new problem for sex workers. In-person sex work is intimate by its very nature, and workers are at heightened risk of contracting the virus if they keep working. But without work, as strip clubs close and clients dwindle, sex workers struggle to survive.

In many countries in Europe, sex work is criminalized directly or indirectly through legal systems such as the “Scandinavian model,” which makes buying sex illegal. Sex workers, who are forced to work in the informal economy, find themselves excluded from emergency assistance available to other workers.  

A new report by the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSWE) notes that sex workers in the continent live in the “economic margins” and often have less savings and government support to fall back on. They are also rarely benefitting from pandemic response and recovery plans.”

Sex workers are often from groups that are already marginalized economically and socially, such as undocumented migrants, people of color, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, some of whom have been pushed out of their families due to homophobia. Sex work may, for them, be one option among bad ones. The ICRSWE report also predicts that hard economic times may mean more people will turn to sex work.

The report asks European governments to issue urgent moratoriums on raids, arrests, and prosecutions for sex work, provide financial support to sex workers, and ensure sex worker-led organizations are included in distribution of emergency assistance.

In the longer term, as the ICRSWE argues, governments should carry out meaningful consultations with sex workers to establish a framework that “respects their human rights and improves their safety and working conditions.”

States that criminalize sex work should work towards decriminalization. Human Rights Watch has documented the harmful impact of laws criminalizing sex work in countries including South Africa, Tanzania, and the United States. We call for decriminalization of sex work everywhere because, as this new report says, decriminalization helps protect sex workers from violence and is an important step towards ending harmful stigmatization.

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