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Desperate times for sex workers in Brazil as Covid-19 paralyzes business

. Apr 10, 2020
Desperate times for sex workers in Brazil as Covid-19 paralyzes business Photo: Léo Pinheiro/FP

Prostitution as a profession has been legal in Brazil since 2012, but it continues to be severely demonized and sex workers are regularly victims of prejudice, abuse, and violence. Moreover, despite being a recognized profession, sex work is not regulated; there are no rules on hours, vacations, career progression, retirement, or anything of the sort. What there is, at the very least, is a limbo in which thousands or perhaps millions of women find themselves, as a means to support themselves and their families.

However, with the Covid-19 pandemic, the lives of countless sex workers have become even more difficult. Even high-end escorts — known in Brazil as “luxury prostitutes” — face difficulties, as social distancing rules imposed by state governments make it difficult for professionals and clients to circulate who, moreover, would be at risk if they were infected.

“Though

prostitution in Brazil in an independent and isolated manner is legal, the whole environment is criminalized, which puts the people who exercise it at constant risk of illegality,&#8221; says writer, activist and sex worker Monique Prada. &#8220;Legally, I can sell sexual services, but only in complete isolation, without the support of colleagues, without working in brothels. It always seems to me that the objective of the laws on sex work in Brazil is to socially isolate the women who do it, pushing them to clandestinity.”&nbsp;</p> <p>For those who work on the streets — who are generally the most vulnerable sex workers and those who often survive on their daily income — the situation may become desperate.&nbsp;&nbsp;</p> <h2>Sex work around Brazil</h2> <p>There is a scarcity of data about sex work in Brazil, whether it be related to the number of women working on the street or the size of the market nationwide. “There are no reliable statistics”, says Ms. Prada. In 2010, documentary TV program &#8220;<a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u7HPe45zrTo">A Liga</a>&#8221; estimated that there were at least 1.5 million sex workers in Brazil, 78 percent of whom were cisgender, and 15 percent were <a href="https://brazilian.report/latin-america/2020/02/02/el-salvador-cities-lgbtq-transphobic-violence/">trans women and <em>travestis</em></a>. An estimated 90 percent of trans women and <em>travestis</em> are engaged in sex work in Brazil.</p> <p>In Brazil, <em>travesti </em>is a particular gender identity which encompasses individuals who were assigned a male gender at birth, but express female gender roles and appearances, often involving body modifications. In the Brazilian LGBT community, <em>travesti</em> is considered a separate identity to trans women or male crossdressers.</p> <p>According to Cida Vieira, president of the Association of Prostitutes of Minas Gerais (Aprosmig), “in the city of Belo Horizonte alone, more than 20,000 sex workers among cis and trans women were affected” by the coronavirus outbreak. She explains that they are “in confinement in their homes or hotels,” and many no longer have any money to eat.</p> <p>Aprosmig, which is a non-profit institution that seeks to protect the human rights of prostitutes in the state, has conducted campaigns to collect food and hygiene products for sex workers.</p> <p>In São Paulo, the NGO Mulheres da Luz is also collecting donations for sex workers. Founded in 2013, the organization serves about 500 sex workers per month at its headquarters, where they offer sewing workshops, literacy classes, and psychological and legal assistance.</p> <p>According to Gabriela Lopes, a volunteer of the organization, the majority of women who seek out the NGO &#8220;are black, over 40-45 years old and are often illiterate or semi-illiterate. They are people who have no form of subsistence, especially because of their age.&#8221;</p> <p>Ms. Lopes denounces that this population is excluded by the federal and state government. &#8220;Street people, trans people, <em>travestis</em> and prostitutes are completely forgotten by public authorities,&#8221; she says. In the city center of São Paulo, adds Ms. Prada, “many <em>travestis</em> are being forced to exchange sex work for begging.”</p> <p>The abandonment situation of sex workers is not exclusive to Brazil. In Japan and the U.S., they have been specifically excluded from government aid packages for self-employed workers. In Mexico, sex workers face similar problems to Brazilians with a shortage of clients and the risk of contamination. Even in the Netherlands, with brothels closed, sex workers started a crowdfunding campaign to support themselves.</p> <h2>Sparse opportunities for income</h2> <p>Ms. Lopes warns, however, that many sex workers are still on the streets. &#8220;Their only source of livelihood is prostitution, whether or not there is a pandemic and risk of contagion, they try to get clients to take food home,&#8221; she says.</p> <p>Many have reduced the price of their services, trying anything to gather enough money to survive.</p> <p>Kelly, a 23-year-old trans woman from Rio de Janeiro, told <strong>The Brazilian Report </strong>that she&#8217;s afraid to work on the streets but she needs to eat, so she flouts local government rules for a few hours a day in search of a minimum income for her livelihood. In São Paulo, 19-year-old Ana said she&#8217;s thinking about trying to make money by becoming an erotic webcam model, but she&#8217;s afraid she&#8217;ll be recognized by family or friends. “I&#8217;m lucky to have some money saved, but I have friends who are in despair not knowing how they&#8217;re going to pay the bills,” she says.</p> <p>A booklet from the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights recommends virtual work to sex workers during the coronavirus pandemic. Yet, online sex work is not a possibility for many and it is not as simple as it might seem. “Many [sex workers] have migrated to the virtual environment through videos, but this is not a possibility for most of our community, at least in Brazil,” explains Ms. Prada.</p> <p>In Rio de Janeiro&#8217;s well-known red-light district of Vila Mimosa, movement is almost nonexistent with several nightclubs, bars, and brothels closing their doors.</p> <p>The vast majority of sex workers work on the streets, becoming easy targets of all sorts of violence. With a generally low level of formal education, they have few opportunities to find another way to survive during a period of crisis. “The perspective is the one of chaos,” says Ms. Prada.

 
Raphael Tsavkko Garcia

Journalist and researcher at the Ph.D. program in Human Rights of University of Deusto, Spain.

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