Safe Positions, Condoms And Masks: Liberian Sex Workers’ Covid-19 Playbook

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Monrovia – Lovely 24, is looking for men wanting to quench their sexual desires. Wearing a black bra top and hot pants, she is at a local entrainment bar here in the capital. Lovely, not her real name, and other women here offering commercial sex, normally stands between the silhouettes of buildings, to call out to clients, that are not coming by easily. 

Lovely is a high school dropout who was introduced to the streets as a teenager. She does this work, she says, to support her three children. It’s dangerous at any time but coronavirus has made it even more so. “As for me, when I go do business with my customers, I can use condom and I don’t kiss them, but I can wear my nose mask,” she says. “When I am having sex, I can do the bend down style so that the man breath can’t hit my face.”

Lovely has always carried condoms to protect herself from pregnancy, HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases. Now she has added facemasks to her supplies. 

“I can say, I am already dead by sleeping with all kinds of different men that I do not know what kind of sickness they have in their bodies, and then I should allow them to hurry my death by putting big sickness inside me to die quick?” she says.

According to the Public Health Institute of Liberia (NPHIL) there have been 1591 cases in the country including 83 deaths during the ten months of the pandemic.

The economic crisis caused by the pandemic has taken a toll on most small businesses in Liberia. Many businesses have collapsed or laid off workers. That has had two impacts for the sex business: fewer clients have the money to pay. And more women and men have been forced to go onto the streets to make money.

That has made public health officials worried that sex workers, who usually have no other means of making money, are particularly vulnerable to the disease. Unstable housing, IV drug use, increased criminalization, and limited access to care put make them more vulnerable than other Liberians according to a report by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation.

Dr. G. Gorbee Logan, Assistant Minister for Curative Service and Acting Chief Medical Officer at the Ministry of Health urged sex workers to follow World Health Organization, (WHO) health protocols to cut down the spread of the virus.

“Even if they are using doggy style to have sex, as they say, they have to wear their mask at all times because their clients with the disease could sneeze or cough once they are in close proximity and they could contract the virus,” Logan said.

“Sex workers are always unprotected, and nothing about the COVID19 pandemic changes the situation,” says Ms. Facia Harris, Executive Director of Paramount Young Women Initiative. “Have we asked ourselves whose providing for them, especially food and health needs during this pandemic? If we want to build communities that are strong, every member of the community must be captured in the response, including the sex workers.”

Women and children are considered the most vulnerable group, and many are still traumatized after the Ebola virus, according to Gender Minister Pico Saydee Tarr. She told a local radio station recently that the ministry is working with women to put out awareness messages in preventing COVID 19 to women groups and communities through their Facebook page and chat groups.

The messages are not making it to everyone. On a recent night sex workers from different parts of Monrovia, gathered on a popular street corner here discussing the strategies they have used to protect themselves. But alarmingly, like many Liberians, some of these women do not believe the virus is real.

“I do not believe coronavirus will catch me so I cannot use nose mask or condom to prevent myself, but I can have sex any kind of way with anybody without using protection and nothing can happen to me,” said Ms. ‘Too Sweet’.

 “I do not even believe that there is coronavirus in Liberia or if it is here, then it is only catching the government officials and not people like us,” said another.   

The women are feeling the sting of the economic downturn. For Lovely, business is down heavily. Previously she would have 12-15 clients a night at the rate of L$500.00 for short time and L$2000.00 for the entire night. But now, as there is hike in prices and the US rate has depreciated, things have changed.

“Our prices are gone up also. We charge US$5.00 for short time and US$20.00 for the entire night, but I can’t lie to you, business is rough, because there is no money in the country. Some night if I am able to get three to five customers, then I must really tell God, ‘Thank you’, because it is not easy.”

Prostitution is illegal for people who run prostitution businesses, but it is not illegal for sex workers themselves. Yet, as the economy has worsened more and more women and men are turning to sex work to make ends meet. Most young sex workers working for themselves or sex bar owners, have no idea that the act is a felonious or misdemeanor crime under the laws of Liberia.

The growing number of the sex workers in Liberia has not only caught the eyes of local residents but it has also caught the eyes of high leaders. Last year, Bong County District #6 Representative Moima Briggs-Mensah and lower House of Representatives, summoned the Minister Tarr and the Inspector General of the Liberia National Police, Patrick Sudoe, to provide reasons why the police had not been cracking down on prostitution.

According to a communication filed by Rep. Briggs-Mensah, the issue surrounding prostitution in Liberia was distressing. However, the attention of the two high profile officials of government has made no obvious difference in reducing the high rate of prostitution. Sex workers are seen at all entertainment centers around areas where local motels are, looking for customers. The pandemic has only added to their numbers.

Many of these women had been taken to local and bars motels to entertain their clients in the past, but with the coronavirus pandemic, many of the local motels and bars like Talk of the Town and Lovers Joy bar are empty. Still they still seek out clients wherever they can find them.

“There is hardly any business on the motel side but only the bar and restaurant where few customers come to eat and drink,” said the caretaker of one establishment, who did not want to give his name. “The girls will keep fanning around here every day to hustle on the male customers who come to eat, and even if I drive them away, they still won’t leave.   

Even with business down, public health experts worry that sex workers could be spreading the disease. Because it often has no symptoms, many sex workers may not even know they have had it.

Despite this, the government has found it difficult to stop them from working.

“Even if the government says sex workers should abstain from sex, they won’t because they are at the bottom of poverty and have no other way of sustaining themselves and their families. Who would monitor them?” asked Dr. Logan “In fact it will be difficult to monitor them, because where would they be found?”

This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.

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