The Sex Worker Implementation Tool (SWIT) national training was rolled out in Colombo, Sri Lanka, organized by the Ahbimani Women Collectivity (AWC), a community-based sex worker led organization in Sri Lanka, in collaboration with the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW). The training, conducted in August 2019, brought together 25 participants from Colombo City.
According to the participants, there are approximately 40,000 female sex workers, 20,000 male sex workers and 500 transgender sex workers in Sri Lanka, the majority working in Colombo city. In addition to local sex workers, it is expected that there are 1000 migrant sex workers from Thailand, Nepal, China, Philippine, India and Russia, working out of spas, karaoke bars, night clubs, casino clubs and brothels, as well as the street, residences, hotels and online.
Sex work is illegal in Sri Lanka
The Vagrants Ordinance, dates back to British rule. Introduced in 1842, the law addresses sex workers, with two sections specifically relevant to prostitution.
Section 2: Punishment of persons behaving riotously or disorderly in the public streets.
Every person behaving in a riotous or disorderly manner in any public street or highway shall be liable to a fine not exceeding five rupees.
Section 7: Soliciting and acts of indecency in public places.
(a) Any person in or about any public place soliciting any person for the purpose of the commission of any act of illicit sexual intercourse or indecency, whether with the person soliciting or with any other person, whether specified or not;
(b) Any person found committing any act of gross indecency, or found behaving with gross indecency, in or about any public place.
Violence is perpetuated by almost everyone in the society, according to the participants. In particular, sex workers have faced violence from the police, some clients, their supervisors and even their partners (boyfriends and husbands). Police arrests of sex workers are very common, and often sex workers arrested by the police have their money taken away and are forced to have sex with the officers, before being sent to court and eventually to jail. One participant, a transgender sex worker, mentioned being undressed in the police station, where they cut off her long hair. Arrested two years ago, the memory still very vivid and painful.
“I was arrested by police six month ago, I was in police station for 3 days. Although according to the law, I would have to stay for 24 hours, I stayed for 3 days. During those 3 days I had to clean the police station and hundreds of cloths and had to have sex with many police men. They did not send me to court. After 3 days they released me from the police station, but those 3 days were very painful for me. Not much food, just work and sex. I would never forget those 3 days of my life.”
-- 25-year-old female sex worker
During the training, participants analyzed the motives for violence and identified the following as the main factors related to violence against sex workers:
Societal Acceptance & Actions
o Sex work is not accepted as an occupation.
o There is stigma and discrimination against sex workers and a negative perception of sex work in the society.
o There is no respect given to sex workers, and they are often dehumanized in society.
o Religious leaders perpetuate the negative opinion of sex works.
o Media negatively portrays sex work.
o Sex workers are perceived to be dangerous for the country/society.
o Sexual violence against sex workers is something to brag about by some men and can make them feel like and appear to be heroes among their peers.
Legal Protection, Rights and Advocacy
o There is no protection of human rights of sex workers, including protective laws for violence against sex workers.
o Sex work is criminalized by law, and sex workers are disempowered.
o Often there is no national ID card or proof of citizenship for sex workers.
o There is no program to end violence against sex workers, including lack of support from NGOs/INGOs/CBOs to stop violence.
o There are no complaint mechanisms in the country for sex workers and therefore no justice is given to sex workers who face violence.
Occupational Hazzard, sex workers face violence when:
o They reject someone who wanted to have sex.
o They are unable to fulfil the high sexual expectations of clients.
o Clients try to demonstrate that they have all the power.
o Clients use drugs.
o Clients don’t want to pay for the service and sex workers repeatedly ask for the money.
To end violence against sex workers in Sri Lanka, the participants worked together to make the following recommendations:
Advocate with key law enforcement members and educate police officers on the human rights of sex workers to end violence.
Build a strong network to increase solidarity, empowering sex workers to challenge human rights violations.
Reform the law and polices against of sex workers and advocate to decriminalize sex work.
Campaign against stigma and discrimination of sex workers through media awareness.
Document human rights violations and raise awareness of the issues with stakeholders.
Work with human rights organizations and collectively act in partnership with key stakeholders to support sex workers and develop strong programs to end violence against sex workers.
Violence against sex workers can be reduced but will be difficult to be completely eliminate. Therefore violence response mechanisms must be maintained and strengthened as an integral component of programs advocating for the protection of sex workers, including HIV programs.