LGBTIQ+ and Sex Worker Rights Defenders At Risk During COVID-19
A new investigation has revealed a sharp increase in violence against LGBTIQ+ and sex worker rights defenders during COVID-19.
Between April and August 2020, Front Line Defenders gathered testimonies from than 50 at-risk human rights defenders (HRDs) protecting LGBTIQ+ communities and sex workers in 13 countries. The results were stark. Activists around the world reported an increase in physical attacks, sexual assault, arrests, raids on their homes, and harassment by security forces during COVID-19.
The virus itself and state responses to the pandemic have affected queer and sex worker communities in ways that exacerbate existing systems of classed, gendered, sexualized and racial injustice. As the need to respond to emergencies rises, HRDs from these groups face increasing risks of arrest, physical attack, and psychological trauma. In Tanzania, the investigation found a spate of attacks on activists’ homes after it became known locally that they were housing LGBTIQ+ people or sex workers at risk of homelessness, hunger and police violence on the streets.
“Almost every week since COVID-19 began, we’ve received photos of violent attacks on the homes of LGBTIQ+ HRDs,” said Erin Kilbride, researcher and author of the report. “Activists around the world have turned their homes into emergency shelters for homeless community members, in part because collective care and mutual aid have always been foundational to queer life. Defenders we spoke to are enduring severe physical, sexual and psychological trauma for helping their communities survive the pandemic.”
Also documented in the report are mass arrests at the offices of LGBTI rights organisations; closure of HRD-run medical clinics; sexual harassment and detention of transgender HRDs at security check points; homophobic and transphobic defamation portraying HRDs as spreaders of COVID-19; and severe psychological trauma over their inability to fully respond to the many dire needs of their communities.
"LGBTIQ+ and sex worker rights defenders have continued their critical, life-saving work during COVID-19 despite immense threats to their physical and psychological health."
- Andrew Anderson, Executive Director, Front Line Defenders
"In addition to human rights advocacy and emergency response work, they are filling humanitarian gaps left by corrupt governments and discriminatory pandemic response programmes. Now more than ever, we affirm our call to end attacks on marginalized defenders doing life-saving work on the ground.”
Front Line Defenders is launching the crisis response report with video interviews hosted by Global LGBTIQ+ Advocate Amazin LeThi ahead of the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers on 17 December.
“The HRDs who gave their stories to this investigation are enduring violent attacks, raids on shelters, arrests, and rampant stigmatization for peacefully demanding access to food, shelter and healthcare for their communities during the pandemic,” said LeThi. “Each horrific story of violence and discrimination I heard was told by an activist who persists in their struggle despite the risks.”
To accompany the investigation, mental health artist and feminist Sravya Attaluri worked with defenders featured in report to depict them “as they deserve to see themselves: safe, powerful, beautiful and surrounded by their communities.”
Note: Upcoming 2021 Report, Sex Worker Rights Defenders At Risk
In early 2021, Front Line Defenders will publish the first global report documenting the risks, threats, and protection needs of sex worker rights defenders. The report features case studies, testimonies, security analysis, and protection requests from human rights defenders, documented on collaborative research trips conducted by Front Line Defenders researchers and HRDs. Between 2017 and 2020, Front Line Defenders interviewed more than 300 sex worker rights defenders and sex worker community members in more than a dozen countries.1 The report documents threats and attacks against HRDs occurring as a direct result of their activism.
Sex worker rights defenders protect their communities’ rights to live free from violence and discrimination; to access healthcare, housing, justice, and employment; and to gather, organize, assemble, and advocate for change.2 3 Their human rights work includes emergency response, community building, advocacy at detention centers, human rights trainings, police reform, protection planning, legal and health counseling, prison aid, and promoting access to justice for survivors of human rights abuses.
Front Line Defenders has previously supported, documented and given visibility to the work and risks of sex worker rights defenders in Urgent Appeals, Statements, Universal Periodic Review submissions, opinion pieces by staff researchers, Cypher digital magazine, national and international campaigns, public events and in collaboration with media networks such as the Guardian, NPR and RTE. Front Line Defenders has worked in solidarity with sex worker rights defenders via its various protection programmes including security grants, digital protection, Rest and Respite, Risk Assessment and Protection Planning, regional protection coordinators, and the Dublin Platform for Human Rights.
1 On four fact-finding missions in Tanzania, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar and El Salvador, researchers visited at least four regions per country and interviewed between 25 and 35 SWRDs in each. Front Line Defenders also interviewed an additional 20 to 40 sex worker community members in each country, to differentiate between risks faced by sex workers who are visible activists, and sex workers who do not identify as activists (or community leaders, outreach workers, peer educators, or advocates). Additional consultations and interviews were held with SWRDs in Tunisia, the United States, Ireland, Thailand, Malawi, the Dominican Republic, Indonesia, Zimbabwe, and Eswatini.
2 Front Line Defenders used the terminology “sex worker rights defenders” because that is how the human rights defenders self-identify.
3 For the purposes of these reports, Front Line Defenders understands sex workers to be adults who regularly or occasionally receive money or goods in exchange for consensual sexual services. In establishing any working definition of sex work, sex worker, or sex worker rights defender, Front Line Defenders respects that many terms related to the sex trade are the subject of ongoing critique by HRDs from these communities themselves. Such shifts in language must be respected and, where appropriate and in consultation with defenders, adopted by the international community.