Seventy-three percent of sex workers in Sri Lanka are the highest earning or primary earning members of their family, while 60% of them are sole earning members of the same, according to a recent survey.
According to a research study titled ‘Status of Sex Workers in Sri Lanka-A National Report 2022-2023’ published by Sex Worker and Allies South Asia – Sri Lankan Chapter, 72% of the workers interviewed have said sex work is a job that they do to feed their family. 92% of those interviewed have dependents in their families including children and elders.
The study highlighted 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.
It is in this context that 45% of workers said their work is never safe. While 66% of sex workers interviewed 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 dangerous to personal safety and well-being is a significant concern.
The research identifies that poor economic status of the household was stated as the primary reason for entering sex work by 62% of the workers. The next two important reasons were being caught in a debt cycle and the reality of not finding any other source of income. Around 24% considered sex work to be the most lucrative profession, they could pursue.
The study noted that sex work in Sri Lanka has been perceived as a public health concern, primarily viewing sex workers as vectors of HIV and other STI.
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, according to the study. 70% of the workers who reported as having been arrested in this study, said that they were sent for STI .
According to this study, 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 their lawyer. Judges are complicit in this illegal practice as they are aware it happens and do not take any action, it says. As a result, 85% of those arrested have said that they have always pleaded guilty leading to a significant number of sex workers having criminal records which has an impact on future employment, including working overseas as migrant labour.
It is also highlighted in the survey that 66% of the workers who have visited the government STI clinics reported that they faced some form of verbal abuse. 83% of the workers said that they have never received contraceptives from the public health midwife.