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Ensuring the Wellness and Safety of Female Sex Workers during the Pandemic

16 June 2021
Oral fluid test, a tool for HIV self-testing, helps female sex workers to continue access HIV test services during the pandemic. Photo: Yayasan Kerti Praja - CBS study team

As the effects of COVID‐19 pandemic emerge over time, it has become clear that the pandemic exposes existing inequalities. It disproportionately affects people who are already marginalized and living in financially precarious situations, often outside social protection mechanisms.

During these difficult times, female sex workers are facing particular hardships and concerns. Safeguarding their human rights and ensuring their access to sexual and reproductive health services is one of the priorities in COVID-19 response.

Take Mirna, for example. The lockdown or large-scale social restrictions (PSSB) has hit her hard. The 30-year-old female sex worker has found it harder and harder to earn enough money for buying food and paying the bills because she has not had as many clients as she used to. Getting food aid from the Jakarta government is also a challenge since she does not have a Jakarta ID card. 

Mirna is not the only one. Her story represents the situation of a large number of other female sex workers in Indonesia.   

UNFPA conducted a rapid assessment in collaboration with OPSI (National Network of Sex Workers) and four Global Fund partners, immediately after President Joko Widodo declared COVID-19 as a national emergency on 13 March 2020. The findings demonstrated that female sex workers have suffered from loss of income due to PSBB, with sex work establishments being closed down to follow the national and sub-national regulations. Some of them had no choice but to risk their own security and continued to work online using social media. Some  also indicated that they were still required to pay ‘contributions’ to their employers or host venue even if they were not working. 

Another issue identified was their limited access to social welfare and health services. Many HIV prevention and treatment services have been closed due to the unavailability of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for health workers, and some essential services have limited their operating hours or number of patients per day. Similar to Mirna, many female sex workers cannot receive government support due to administrative barriers, such as the identification requirements. 

To address the needs on the ground during this complex situation, UNFPA and partners have converted outreach programmes into virtual format. We mix the use of various social media channels, such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and community Whatsapp group to ensure sex-workers and other marginalized populations stay connected with peer leaders and peer educators. Through this platform, they can receive life-saving information on HIV and COVID-19, and refer to necessary services and tests.  

We have also introduced oral fluid test (an HIV self-testing tool that can be administered independently by the sex workers) as part of a community-based screening study, mobile condom outlets, and mobile antiretroviral (ARV) distribution so that they can monitor and manage their health conditions more easily. 

Thanks to inter-agency collaboration and support from the Global Fund, UNFPA and partners can successfully continue providing support and HIV services for female sex workers in 88 districts in Indonesia despite challenges. 

Female sex workers are often the primary breadwinners of their family, while at the same time experiencing stigma and disrespect from the family and community. Increasing risk of violence due to COVID-19, in addition to economic hardships, is a silent threat to the lives and wellbeing of female sex workers. That’s why, ensuring uninterrupted services for marginalized populations should be a priority during the pandemic. 

 

Asti Widihastuti 

Female Sex Worker Officer, UNFPA Indonesia 

 

Megumi Uchino

Humanitarian Programme Analyst, UNFPA Indonesia