The Russian Sex Workers’ Forum (SW Forum) is an association which includes people with experience of sex work, active sex workers, their partners, assistants and allies. The SW Forum is a platform for constructive communication between sex workers to discuss and develop common strategies to protect health and well-being of sex workers; to provide access to evidence-based HIV/STI prevention programs; to combat violence against sex workers by clients, police and third parties; to change public opinion about sex workers and sex work for the better by the state and society (destigmatization); to waive fines for sex work; to ensure sex workers’ full access to justice; and to strengthen and develop the sex worker community and mobilize sex workers and their supporters to join forces in the above directions.
Difficulties caused by the virus
Russia has always been a difficult country for SWs, transpeople and migrants, and due to the consequences of COVID-19 the situation got even worst.
As demand for sex services has fallen sharply and the risks of COVID-19 infection have increased, some sex workers have stopped working. It is no longer easy to reach this key group since sex workers are less likely to work on the street and more likely to stay in rooms that are not accessible. Many sex workers are losing contact. Some sex workers continue to provide sex services and put themselves at risk of infection. In addition, they are at increased risk of becoming victims of crime or falling prey to police raids, and thus falling prey to police brutality. Due to the epidemic, crimes against sex workers – robbery, theft, beating, fraud, threats, blackmail, extortion – have multiplied.
Due to the quarantine, some sex workers cannot return to their homes and some are left without means of subsistence and housing. It is especially difficult for migrants to return to their homes. They have to live in one small apartment for several people, which multiplies the risk of infection with coronavirus.
Organizations working with SWs have cancelled outreach visits to places where SWs still continue their activities, at their own risk. HIV testing and the distribution of condoms have been stopped. Sex workers still need condoms, as well as protective masks, antiseptics and wet wipes, and some need food and financial means.
There are also certain problems that sex workers’ clients may also be carriers of coronavirus and break quarantine, putting sex workers at risk of infection.
Due to quarantine, HIV positive sex workers have no access to ARV therapy. Due to lack of money, inability to pay rent, hormone treatment, condoms and lubricants, someone went to work online, on webcams. But it is also difficult there, because high income requires a large number of online customers. Beginners don’t have them. And because of the influx of new people, those who have long been earning on the webcam, began to earn less.
Because of the Coronavirus pandemic, there has been an increased emphasis in the community on prevention education and protection against coronavirus. Through social networks, special groups, personal profiles, chat rooms and groups of various messengers, the forum informs SWs about what measures to take to minimize the risks of infection, both during everydayl life and during the provision of sex services. We have sent out several special documents with visual content to prevent coronavirus infection. In addition, volunteers and employees of some projects cooperating with the SW Forum purchased personal protective equipment (masks and antiseptics) and distributed it to sex workers using their own funds. Information was also distributed among sex workers on how to quickly make their own protective masks and antiseptics.
We are constantly working with the media, organising interviews with sex workers about the problems associated with the pandemic, how they comply with safety measures and what safety measures clients require.
A lawyer of the SW Forum has developed a memo on receiving social benefits from the government for families with children and the unemployed. Sex workers are encouraged to apply for social benefits if they fall into the privileged category of citizens.
We keep SWs informed about the pandemic news, new risks, prevention measures and risks of administrative penalties. At the request of one SW from St. Petersburg, the info manager of the SW Forum informed the special services that a citizen who violated the quarantine applied for services. Thus, the SW Forum helps sex workers to demonstrate their active position and combat the spread of coronavirus.
Today, the SW Forum is attempting to obtain operational funding to provide financial assistance to those SW who are particularly affected by the Coronavirus, as well as food packages or temporary accommodation.