Impact of COVID-19 on Sex Workers in Africa

A quote from an organisation in DRC stating that sex workers have reduced access to health services during the pandemic.

In April 2020, NSWP launched a global survey to understand the impact of COVID-19 on sex workers.

The survey has received 156 responses from 55 different countries to date. Out of these responses, 22 were from 13 countries – Angola, Burundi, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eswatini, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Togo, Tunisia, Zambia – in the Africa region.

“The African Sex Worker Alliance is closely monitoring the impact of COVID-19, documenting sex worker-led responses in the region and disseminating guides with information about corona, safety measures and guidelines in case of infection.

 Many sex workers report facing hunger as their income source was stripped out. Sex worker-led organisations are mobilising and championing solutions to support their communities; Alcondoms in Cameroon and Hoymas, BHESP and SWOP Ambassadors in Kenya mobilized peers to distribute PREP and ARV’S to sex workers at their homes, besides food and hygiene packages. Sisonke South Africa, FADA in Rwanda and sex worker organisations in DRC, Benin and Kenya are sensitizing their community and brothel owners about COVID-19 hygiene and safety guidelines to reduce infection risks.”

– African Sex Workers Alliance (ASWA), NSWP Regional Network

Government responses to the COVID-19 pandemic

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, sex workers all over the world are experiencing hardship, a total loss of income and increased discrimination, harassment and violence.

Measures such as the closure of brothels and massage parlors, travel bans, and curfews – alongside the fact that sex workers are often not included in government relief packages – have increased the huge inequalities sex workers are facing.

Sex workers and other key populations are not taken into account for the government's funds. It's for the general population and sex workers are not an integral part of the population.” – Kiraay, Senegal

Only respondents from Kenya and Nigeria reported that government support – income support schemes, emergency funds, emergency supplies, and rent or mortgage relief – are available for sex workers.

UMANDE, based in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, pointed out the reasons why sex workers are not included in some countries, stating that “the law does not recognise this segment of the population but also society stigmatises and rejects sex workers.”

In addition to a global economic crisis, access to healthcare has also been severely affected by the ongoing crisis.

Respondents from Angola, Burundi, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eswatini, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal and Tunisia reported reduced access to condoms and lubricants. Reduced access to HIV treatments was also a common theme among the responses to the survey.

Prevention measures and hygiene rules enacted by health authorities in DRC, especially the lockdown and social distancing, have negatively impacted sex worker incomes. COVID-19 has significantly reduced sex workers' access to services and crucial health materials regarding HIV& STI prevention and testing.” – Allied organisation for the promotion of the right to health of sex workers, Democratic Republic of the Congo

How is the sex worker community responding to this crisis?

Sex worker organisations and individuals across the Africa region are stepping in to support one another where governments have failed. Responses from Burundi, Cameroon, Eswatini, and Senegal recorded that the local sex worker community had established emergency funds for sex workers. However, a common theme among these responses was that the emergency funding is hard to secure.

We have submitted requests for the emergency fund but so far we have not received anything.” – Sex worker organisation, Cameroon

The sex worker community have been relying on digital spaces for providing support, emergency services and for training each other on moving their work online. Sex worker organisations in both Senegal and Tunisia pointed out that virtual support is not an option for every sex worker, as access to the internet is still a luxury that not everyone can afford.

Very reduced by WhatsApp and not for all when we have difficulties to eat or pay the rent; we do not think about buying an internet connection if we don’t have the chance to live where there's free Wi-Fi. However as usual there are obvious constant precariousness issues among the major part of sex workers who didn’t access education and are the most affected already during peace time, if I can call it like that, and even more in a pandemic period.” – Kiraay, Senegal

“Not for everybody, we don’t have the means to buy their phone connections.” – Sex worker organisation, Tunisia

When asked what else is needed to help protect sex workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, responses ranged from simple requests for basic PPE such as masks, to better access to healthcare facilities, and the inclusion of sex workers in government relief packages.

There should be a transport to transfer them to health facilities; support of food packages; train them to do a tip tap on sanitising hands more for those in rural areas, where water is scarce; offer them sanitisers or wet tissues to keep them safe when on duty, as they have needs to respond to; help them with resources to enable them be in touch with the organisation to support in health and mental issues.” – Sex Worker Organisation, Eswatini

We need the government to also consider us with relief as they did to musicians, and comedians. Our work is down totally that enabled us for upkeep. They must consider us as human beings who have been working and earning like them. They must not discriminate us. And please offer us with corona protection devices as they do to others. They should try to lighten da note of curfew of 7 at least to a better hrs that sex workers can search.” – Sex Worker, Kenya