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COVID-19 Exacerbates Injustices for Sex Workers in Ecuador

A woman in a face mask walks in an empty city street.

All photos Javier Carrera/CARE

All photos Javier Carrera/CARE

Loss of income, an overwhelmed health care system, and rises in gender-based violence are just a few of the challenges facing sex workers during the pandemic.

Sonia*, 31, has been a sex worker in Ecuador for most of the last 12 years. But when COVID-19 arrived in Ecuador this spring, it disrupted her ability to work and provide for her two children. Her tenuous financial situation is causing her and her children a lot of anxiety. She’s running out of money for food, rent, and other supplies, and worries that her children will get infected with coronavirus.

Sonia says the national government discriminates against her for being a sex worker.

“They are invisible in the public agenda,” says Alexandra Moncada, CARE Ecuador Country Director. “There are no services or policies for sex workers to ensure some kind of basic rent, to ensure food and housing at least during the pandemic. The risk of contagion is still very high, and the situation is very dire for them.”

The pandemic is exacerbating injustices and unfair systems. Curfews and lockdowns are leading to increases in gender-based violence.

“Things that were happening out in the open are now happening in more clandestine ways that create additional risks,” Moncada says.

The country’s health care system is struggling to keep up with the COVID-19 response and ignoring other important services like free STD and HIV treatment and testing.

CARE has implemented virtual sessions for vulnerable populations, including sex workers, to provide information about COVID-19 and GBV survivor support. CARE also provides sex workers with face shields, soap and hygiene kits as well as vouchers for STD and HIV testing and treatment.

CARE’s cash transfer program helps people cover their basic needs, including rent, food or medicine. Some sex workers are using the cash to organize and start businesses selling food and making masks or makeup, Moncada says.

Sonia, too, dreams of starting her own business and says that being able to access credit would help. Despite the difficult situation, Sonia hopes to find a way to get by for her two children.

A woman looks forward while inside her apartment.

Sonia lives in Machala, Ecuador, with her two children in a rented home. She began working as a sex worker at age 19.

A woman in a face mask kneels while looking at two dogs in front of her.

Sonia moved into her home at the begnning of the year, settling for a smaller space because of the cheaper rent. She loves her landlord’s dogs like her own, but aspires to save enough to buy her own house and no longer have to rent.

Quarantine has been difficult for her and her children. She says the children especially have been affected emotionally and psychologically.

A woman in a face mask walks in an empty city street.

Although she hasn’t experienced violence during quarantine, Sonia believes the confinement has increased the levels of gender-based violence in some homes. According to a recent CARE report, experts expect an additional 15 million cases of gender-based violence globally for every three months the pandemic causes shutdowns.

A woman in a face mask stands outside of a small store in a city.

Sonia does most of her shopping in the store located on the ground floor of her building.

Sonia prepares some chifles (fried bananas), a cheap staple for her family, in her home kitchen. Lack of money for food has been a constant concern since the start of the pandemic. She says the government of Ecuador discriminates against her and other sex workers and denies them adequate support.

One of Sonia’s passions is singing and playing her guitar. She had to stop playing for four months recently after breaking her right hand. Her favorite artist is Laura Pausini.

A woman in a face mask stands on a city street.

Sonia left sex work when she met the father of her second child. He worked as a party clown and Sonia soon began working with him as an assistant, sometimes dressed as Minnie Mouse, a job she says she enjoyed and remembers fondly. During that time, she took courses in decorations and pastries, in order to expand the party services she could provide. After her partner’s death, however, she returned to sex work.

Sonia dreams of starting her own business and says that being able to access credit would help. Despite the difficult situation, Sonia hopes to find a way to get by for her two children.

*Name has been changed.

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