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Status of Sex Workers in Sri Lanka: A National Report 2022-2023

Image from the report cover.

Sex work in Sri Lanka has hitherto been perceived as a public health concern, with sex worker population estimates being extrapolated based on available data in the context of HIV and STI prevention. This public health approach does not provide adequate insight into the life experiences of sex workers in Sri Lanka. Any discussion on stigma and discrimination in public health contexts focus mainly on accessing testing and treatment services from government and non-government service providers.

The public health approach primarily views sex workers as vectors of HIV and other STIs. This is underpinned by the fact that it is a common practice for Sri Lankan magistrates to order a compulsory screening for sexually transmitted infections of sex workers arrested under the vagrancy and/or brothel’s ordinances. 70% of the workers who reported as having been arrested in this study, said that they were sent for STI tests.

This dehumanization of the sex worker using extra-legal measures that are not made
essential or mandatory in law has led to sex workers being excluded and discriminated
against. This exclusion extends to all spaces that are to ensure fundamental rights within and beyond the state such as those that address include women’s rights, trans and queer rights, and labour rights.

This research attempts to further our understanding of the challenges Sri Lankan sex workers face in accessing education, welfare, health, justice and the violence sex workers face at work and at home.

Key findings of this research provide insight into how stigma, discrimination, and violence
pervade every aspect of sex workers’ lives in Sri Lanka:

125 workers said they dream of a life without violence. 103 workers said they dream of a life with social acceptance and respect.

Law

Nearly 50% of the workers who were arrested, especially under the Vagrancy Ordinance, were forced, intimidated or manipulated into pleading guilty by either the Police or by their lawyer. Judges are complicit in this illegal practice as they are aware it happens and do not take any action. As a result of this common practice, 85% of those arrested have said that they have always plead guilty. Due to this practice a significant number of sex workers have criminal records which has an impact on future employment, including working overseas as migrant labour.

Health

66% of the workers who have visited the government STI clinics reported that they faced some form of verbal abuse. 66% reported that such verbal abuse included comments of their ‘character’, i.e. implying that they are immoral, sinful and ‘bad’ women. 35% received
suggestions from STI clinic staff that they engage in alternative professions based on the
assumption that this profession is inherently bad and/or sinful. 83% of the workers said that they have never received contraceptives from the public health midwife and 76% of the workers said that a public health midwife has never visited their home. While 80% of the female workers had visited the government STI clinic, only 35% of cis-gendered women workers have visited the ‘Suwa Nari – Women’s wellness clinic ’ at the government hospital that focuses on overall wellbeing. 91% said that they always use condoms, and of the small number who said they have not worn condoms at work, 70% said it was because clients refused to wear a condom.

Social safety

Findings also show that sex workers struggle to access government social safety programmes.

For example, 77% have never applied for the government Samurdhi benefit. This is primarily due to a combination of lack of necessary documentation and social discrimination of sex workers.

Of the small number who did apply and were denied Samurdhi, 56% stated it was because
they did not perform sexual favours. This practice of sexual bribery is normalized by different state officials, including Police to Samurdhi officers. 25% were denied Samurdhi as they did not have access to a permanent address while 15% said they did not have other requisite documentation. 3% were denied it as they did not have a marriage certificate either because they chose to not get married or had not registered their marriage.
Education Out of 88% who attended school 18% have completed their Ordinary Level and only 6% have completed Advanced Level. 14% have dropped out of school in the 5th grade or below. The main reasons for this abysmal state of education among sex workers emerges as being poverty and social stigma.

Family responsibilities

60% of the workers are sole earning members of their family and 73% are the highest earning or primary earning member of their family. 69% workers showed that they have three or more dependents in the family. 72% said sex work is a job that they do which feeds their family when they were asked how they feel about their job. It is in this context that 45% of workers said their work is never safe while 23% say it is mostly unsafe. 66% stated that clients are responsible for them feeling unsafe, followed by 20% each citing hotel owners and law enforcement as responsible for them feeling unsafe. Law enforcement officers being perceived as dangers to personal safety and wellbeing is a significant concern, and data in this study, quantitative and qualitative, repeatedly is indicative of this, thereby suggesting that law enforcement officers need further training and sensitization to help protect the wellbeing of citizens who are also sex workers.

This research shows that social stigma around sex work has led to systemic discrimination,
violence and dehumanisation of sex workers in Sri Lanka. It emphasises the need to acknowledge and accept sex work as legitimate work. That is the first step towards ensuring that sex workers enjoy equity, justice, and a personal and work life that is free from discrimination and violence. This research is an outcome and reflection of the ongoing work of sex workers and allies to strengthen the sex workers’ movements in Sri Lanka.

Recommendations

1. The state must enable broad based awareness programs within the Sri Lanka Police force, beginning the police training colleges and extending across to the active police force at local and national levels. Such programs must involve dispelling prevalent harmful and judgmental ideas about sex work and go beyond viewing sex workers ONLY as vectors of disease. It is this construct that justifies social stigma and the resultant dehumanizing of sex workers through violence and discrimination. Such programs must include civil society organisations who work with sex workers within a human rights framework, as well as the sex worker leadership of the emerging movement for sex workers rights in Sri Lanka. This approach will help the police to begin viewing sex workers as human beings who deserve to live with fundamental rights and dignity and thereby access services, including those offered by the Sri Lanka Women and Children’s Desk, without fear of discrimination. Sri Lanka Police must immediately issue a circular with guidelines that address discrimination and violence faced by sex workers at the hands of law enforcement.

2. The state must undertake awareness programs, which include the sex worker leadership of the emerging movement for sex workers rights in Sri Lanka, and civil society organisations who work with sex workers within a human rights framework, within the health care system, beginning with Government Nursing Schools, Medical Faculties and for all health care service providers including Doctors, Nurses, Public Health Midwives, Public Health Inspectors among others. In addition, these awareness programs must not be restricted to Sexually Transmitted Infections but rather address the overall health and wellbeing of citizens who are sex workers. Prevailing social stigma and discrimination among health care officials must be addressed as part of the state’s commitment to ensure access to universal healthcare. The Ministry of Health must therefore immediately issue a circular with guidelines that addresses the discrimination and violence faced by sex workers within the health care system.

3. The Judiciary must acknowledge and dispel informal practices of criminalizing sex workers when the offences under which they are often brought in are not provable in a court of law. The Judicial Services Commission must commission a research study involving experts in the field of Sex Worker rights, , the sex worker leadership of the emerging movement for sex workers rights in Sri Lanka, and civil society organisations who work with sex workers within a human rights framework, on the illegal and extra-legal practices among lawyers, judges, and the police with regards to sex work and affirm that the rule of law must be reinstated. Based on this research, guidelines must be issued to ensure that sex workers are treated as equal to all others before the law and due process of law must be followed. Illegal and extra-legal mechanisms that perpetuate discrimination, violence and criminalization of sex workers must be strongly opposed by the Judiciary.

4. The Vagrancy Ordinance and the Brothels Ordinance which are both archaic laws that include vague definitions and non-provable ‘offences’ must be removed in their entirety in order to decriminalize sex work in Sri Lanka. These laws have consistently been executed in a manner that is in contravention of fundamental rights of all Sri Lankan citizens that are guaranteed under the Sri Lanka Constitution, and by numerous international legal standards that Sri Lanka is bound by.

5. The state must convene a joint committee with the intent of issuing a joint circular through Ministries of Health, Justice, Public Administration, Education, Law and Order, Labour, Department of Registration of Persons among others, acknowledging that those who engage in sex work have been systemically discriminated. For example, the Department of Labour and Labour relations must ensure the application of all relevant labour laws with regards to wages and workplace safety for sex workers. Any and all guidelines must also stipulate that sex workers are to be treated on par with all those who are recognised as marginalised on the basis of their economic status and should be able to access state services that ensure basic rights to education, health, housing, legal aid, livelihood support, economic assistance (especially during crises) etc. This process must necessarily include the sex worker leadership of the emerging movement for sex workers rights in Sri Lanka, and civil society organisations who work with sex workers within a human rights framework.

6. The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka in collaboration with the sex worker leadership of the emerging movement for sex workers rights in Sri Lanka, and civil society organisations who work with sex workers within a human rights framework, must guide all other relevant state bodies in Sri Lanka to recognize sex workers as a group of people whose fundamental rights are consistently denied and issue clear statements and concrete guidelines to redress this.

7. Civil Society and Non-Governmental Organisations working on the rights of women, children, trans and queer rights, workers rights, health rights, economic rights etc. must include sex workers without prejudice as part of their ongoing work to enable sex workers to participate in the wider human rights movement. CSOs and NGOs must acknowledge that prevailing social stigma and resultant discrimination may exist within and organize awareness and sensitization programmes that include the emerging sex worker leadership in Sri Lanka to help mitigate and eliminate these harmful notions, and accept that sex work is work.

8 . National and International Donors, Funders and Development Partners must engage with the sex worker leadership of the emerging movement for sex workers rights in Sri Lanka to understand the ground realities of sex work in Sri Lanka, and the need for sex work to be decriminalized. This would involve National and International Donors, Funders and Development Partners not limiting interventions to the public health sphere [disease prevention], alternative livelihoods, and human trafficking.

Read the full report :Status of sex workers in sri lanka 2022-2023 EN

The survey was conducted via the KoboToolbox; a free and open source online survey tool
designed for humanitarian settings. 25 peer researchers who were trained on using the tool, conducted 283 interviews. This data was supplemented by written submissions by a panel of experts [Retired Senior Deputy Inspector General of Sri Lanka Police – Priyantha Jayakody, Former commissioner of the Human Rights Commission – Ambika Satkunanathan, Attorney at Law working extensively on Fundamental Rights issues – Pulasthi Hewamanne, Former Country Director of UNAIDS – Dr. Dayanath Ranatunga, Clinical Psychologist and Associate Professor in Psychology, Department of Sociology, University of Colombo – Prof. Gameela Samarasinghe, and Researcher and Activist – Sarala Emmanuel.] who sat for a hearing of 30 selected respondents from across Sri Lanka.

Praja Diriya Padanama
Stand Up Movement Sri Lanka
SWASA North
Trans Equality Trust
The Grassrooted Trust

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