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Extreme challenge, or how to protect the rights of sex workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Interview with Nataliia Isaieva (CO “Legalife-Ukraine”)

24 Apr 2020 20:04:17

The Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union (UHHRU) continues a series of interviews with leaders of human rights organizations in Ukraine on improving the protection of the rights of vulnerable groups during the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the most affected populations by quarantine restrictions are sex workers.

On how human rights defenders can help sex workers defend their rights in such a difficult time, we are discussing in interview with Nataliia Isaieva, director of All-Ukrainian Charity Organization “Legalife-Ukraine”.

To date, the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic is the # 1 global theme and is in full swing. Organizations such as the UN and PACE had already expressed concern that widespread public quarantine restrictions had a negative impact on the preservation of human rights. What is the main danger to the rights of the sex worker community in this regard?

The COVID-19 pandemic, like other health crisises, exposes existing inequalities and disproportionately affects people already criminalized, marginalized and those living in financially dangerous situations, often outside of social protection mechanisms.

At the same time many of sex workers also belong to other vulnerable groups, and as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic worldwide, they experience hardship, total loss of income, growing discrimination and persecution.

The criminalization of various aspects of sex work in most countries also contributes to the already precarious position of sex workers in the informal economy.

As sex workers and their clients isolate themselves, sex workers remain unprotected and become more vulnerable due to lack of access to national social protection schemes, and also because of their exclusion from the package of emergency social protection measures applied to other workers, especially in countries where sex work is criminalized. They are unable to provide for themselves and their families, they are at risk of homelessness, and have limited access to health services, condoms, and other products for safer sex. Thus, these days sex workers are at increased risk for their safety, their health and their lives and they are pushed to the limits of survival.

The situation in Ukraine reflects regional and global trends. As the virus spread, the government began to take various measures to ensure the safety of citizens. Sex workers, however, remained unprotected. Sex workers has nearly no chance to receive the financial assistance provided by the government. Meanwhile, sex workers around the world are creating emergency response funds to help the community in times of crisis and asking all concerned people to make their donations.

They already expressed their concerns in a joint statement by the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) and UNAIDS have expressed their concerns in a joint statement, as well as in statements from the Sex Worker Advocacy Network (SWAN) and the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSE).

The Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women (GAATW) has also issued a statement calling on the anti-trafficking movement to recognize a broader view of human trafficking during the global pandemic COVID-19. The crisis continues to expose wider inequalities (including access to health care, unemployment benefits, non-standard employment, income inequality, domestic violence, and racism).

Here is an excerpt from the statement:

Our view is that the pandemic exposed the flaws of a global economic model that favors the rich, rejects regulation and taxation, and relies on cheap, controlled, and exploited labor.

The crisis in healthcare will pass, but it is likely to be followed by an economic crisis. The anti-trafficking movement should go beyond its shelter and join the growing demands for system changes. All other actions will be considered selfish, like a holiday during COVID-19.

How does CO “Legalife-Ukraine” respond to these challenges at organizational level?

CO “Legalife-Ukraine” has its branches and initiative groups in different cities of Ukraine. Wherever possible, we switched to remote work or in compliance with the norms, but we continue to work continuously, providing counseling, legal, medical and social support to sex workers. We respond to community needs, where it is possible to redistribute available funds in response to the COVID-19 pandemic by purchasing personal protective equipment, food, and assistance for sex workers with children. Many of our activists organize fundraising among the concerned people. I only wish there were more sympathetic and caring people. As a result of our partnership with a number of organizations both in the public sector, as well as with some institutions, we continue to support sex workers in access to a number of prevention programs, in responding to domestic violence, in providing legal assistance and social support.

Over the past year, largely thanks to the actions of the CO “Legalife-Ukraine” and UHHRU, the topic of decriminalization of sex work has remained on the agenda of national media and state bodies. What are the prospects for decriminalizing sex work in Ukraine in 2020?

Indeed, the topic of sex work and various kinds of discussions on decriminalization have recently been “heard”, causing a variety of reviews. This makes me happy. These processes do not stop and continue, but since advocacy is a rather peculiar activity with a number of proposed steps, such as discussions (today this happens mainly on the Internet and is often accompanied by cyber-bullying, internal misogyny / female misogyny and personal persecution of activists), as well as conducting information and educational campaigns, in conditions of social isolation, our work may be delayed or may not be so productive.

You are a member of the Governing Councils and take an active part in the work of a number of well-known European human rights organizations protecting the rights of sex workers. How have quarantine restrictions affected the work of human rights defenders in Europe?

A restriction on movement has been introduced around the world, social isolation and more is being maintained.  The global sex worker movement has to react and change working conditions. We’ve already moved to the most online level. We learn (together with all human rights defenders) not only to carry out various activities through the Internet, but also to respond to the problems faced by sex workers only. This is a challenge for us, because for advocacy processes it is necessary to look for additional resources – both human and material.

Why do decriminalization and destigmatization processes in relation to vulnerable groups of the population are important in Ukraine today?

We support the measures taken by the government to reduce the peak of the epidemic and slow down the spread of the virus, while avoiding overload of the health-care system. However, resources and social protection measures should be provided to all on an equal basis. Vulnerable groups are part of our society; they are entitled to the same level of security as all other citizens of the country.

In order to ensure safety for everyone and succeed in protecting health and saving lives, CO “Legalife-Ukraine” call on the Ukrainian government:

1. To decriminalize sex work to ensure the health, safety and well-being of sex workers;

2. To provide financial support for sex workers and other marginalized groups, including those who are undocumented;

3. To ensure adequate and uninterrupted access to medical and harm reduction services;

4. To provide shelter for all people in emergency situations;

5. To strengthen control over the actions of the National Police in order to prevent abuse of power.

Source of interview: UHHRU