Peru’s sex workers find themselves at life-or-death crossroads amid lockdown

By Fernando Gimeno

Lima, Jun 2 (efe-epa).- Either dodge stay-at-home orders and seek out customers on the street or go without the money needed for food, medicine and rent. That is the crossroads faced by sex workers in Peru’s capital, who have been compelled to ask for handouts and prepare communal pots of food to evade hunger.

International Sex Workers Day is being observed on Tuesday in recognition of the exploitation and marginalization often suffered by these individuals.

But despite calls to protect their health and rights, Peru’s extended coronavirus-triggered, nationwide stay-at-home orders and shutdowns of non-essential businesses have threatened sex workers’ very survival.

Eleven women have died since the health emergency began, leaving orphans behind. Three of them fell victim to Covid-19, while the others perished as a result of “hunger and a lack of medical treatment” for other conditions, Leida Portal, president of the Miluska Life and Dignity Sex Workers’ Association and founder of the Latin American Sex Workers’ Platform, told Efe.

“We all share in the pain. We suffer each and every loss because we don’t know when it will be our turn,” Portal said from her partner Lidia’s room, where the two of them were preparing 70 rations of chicken stew for distribution to sex workers in Lima’s Historic Center.

“We never thought (we) would be making communal pots and knocking on doors seeking” money for food, said the president of the Miluska organization, which comprises more than 1,100 women in Lima and is supported by the Red Umbrella Fund, a global grant-making body that provides opportunities and funding for sex-worker-led organizations.

Assistance also has been provided by leading feminist organizations in Peru such as the Manuela Ramos Movement and Flora Tristan, including the provision of food relief three times a week and help with covering the cost of coffins for the deceased.

Little help, however, has come from lawmakers even though they had sought the vote of sex workers in January’s parliamentary elections, according to Portal. “Sometimes the indifference kills you. Now they hang up on us. They’re not supportive at all. There are thousands of us whores in Peru, but our vote is invisible,” Portal said.

“The government tells us not to go outside, and it’s true you have to heed the emergency decree. But … who takes into account the health of my (fellow sex workers)? Who recognizes the hunger of their children? No one does,” she added.

Coronavirus lockdown measures have made it more difficult than ever for sex workers to earn a living. Nightly curfews mean they can only seek customers during the day, even as police enforce stay-at-home orders.

“If before we faced violence, discrimination and extortion, now it’s worse. Now we have no rights,” Portal said.

Some hostels that have functioned as clandestine brothels during the nationwide lockdown have been the target of police raids.

Detained sex workers were subsequently forced to undergo a Covid-19 test at a private clinic at a cost of 300 soles ($87.50) and pay hefty fines for violating the stay-at-home order, which last week was extended until the end of June.

“We had 12 girls arrested last week. (The fines totaled) 8,000 soles. Where are we going to get that? We don’t have any money. We’ve had to call their families for help, but in most cases we’ve been met with rejection,” Portal said.

In most cases, the government aid being provided to the nation’s poorest households has not reached sex workers, but for Portal the indifference shown to her colleagues has been most disheartening of all.

She said she can’t forget how one fellow sex worker died of Covid-19 while waiting for a hospital bed and an oxygen cylinder.

“She couldn’t breathe and they didn’t treat her … It’s painful to help a colleague who’s dying, and no matter how much the doctors want to do something they can’t because they have no beds. There’s no oxygen, no medicine … there’s nothing,” Portal said.

The president of the Miluska association also has experienced first-hand how corpses of sex workers who died at a hospital can be stuck in limbo.

With no family members to claim the body, she said she has had to wait up to three days for permission to remove it for cremation, adding that the body bag containing the corpse had no identifying label.

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