Sex work has often been referred to as one of the oldest professions in the world. Today, it is prevalent in most parts of the world. In Guyana, across the country sex work occurs in homes, hotels, brothels and in the streets. The profession is still illegal here, where it is negatively affected by realities like human trafficking.
In many places, however, sex work is legal. Germany, Algeria, Panama, Cuba and Barbados are just a few of those places. What is often condemned in some countries where it is legal are brothels and solicitation. Nevertheless, anywhere sex work is legal, there will be less fear of condemnation or harm.
In Guyana, sex workers are constantly at risk. Many face violence on a regular basis and also stigma and discrimination. Therefore, a day like International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, which is December 17th, is important to bring attention to the struggles of sex workers in Guyana. Some may argue that it is unlawful and the people who are sex workers do so at their own risk, but it is time to explore changing those laws.
Non-Governmental Organisations, such as the Guyana Sex Worker Coalition have called for the decriminalisation of sex work. Though this is yet to happen, it is the human right of the people involved to be protected from those who target them. It cannot be ignored that many of the people who sit in positions of authority, with the power to initiate change in our country, also seek the services of sex workers. So, the question is—when will we be open to abolishing the laws that prohibit sex work so that there can be regulation and protection for sex workers?
The observance of International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers began in 2003, when an American, Gary Ridgeway, was convicted of 49 murders. Around the world, sex workers who have lost their lives are remembered through actions such as vigils. Ridgeway targeted sex workers because he thought they were easy to pick up, no one would miss them, and so he could get away with murder. Murders of sex workers have also taken place locally. In 2015 sex worker Noel Luthers, known as ‘Nephi,’ aged 20, was fatally shot because a client demanded that Luthers return the money he paid for services.
There are many in this country who hold the same beliefs as Gary Ridgeway. They believe the lives of sex workers do not matter. They use, abuse and discard them. The violence sex workers experience here is interpersonal and institutional.
The director of the Guyana Sex Worker Coalition, Miriam Edwards, shared a number of occurrences where sex workers were abused. What is unfortunate about the incidencts is that those in the medical profession often discriminate against sex workers. While I am quite sure there are medical professionals who treat them with respect, the reports of them being shamed and mistreated when seeking medical attention are alarming.
There are cases where sex workers have been beaten and robbed. The story was told of one man who was targeting female sex workers. He would have sex with them, beat them and then retrieve the money he would have paid for their services. He also stabbed a sex worker. He threatened to kill her and because of fear, she abandoned the trade. Several other sex workers were also his victims and initially there was no justice from the police.
It must be noted also that many in the Guyana Police Force also discriminate against sex workers. Like those in the medical profession, sex workers face mostly verbal abuse from police officers. Police officers have asked sex workers if they have nothing better to do. Some have even told them that it was their fault that they were abused.
The man who was abusing the sex workers walked free initially because it was said that a relative of his had contacts within the police force. He was eventually arrested, but the women, many who could not afford lawyers eventually did not pursue the case.
There was a time when many of Guyana’s women went to places like Cayenne to engage in sex work. Many still leave the country to do so. But while some of our sex workers are leaving, there are many coming here from places like Brazil, Venezuela and Dominican Republic. They also experience violence.
A Dominican sex worker was stabbed for example. Fear of deportation was a factor in her not seeking justice. It can be expected that with the promise of oil wealth foreign sex workers will continue to come Guyana.
When we cannot relate to someone else’s reality, it is easy to be a judge and condemn. Sex workers are mothers with children to take care of. Some have other professions by day, but because of the need to earn more money sex work is a second job. Most transwomen turn to sex work because few organisations would hire them. Even now that the cross-dressing laws have been ruled unconstitutional, many still would not want to hire transwomen.
While there are those sex workers who may simply choose the life because they believe it is where they can perform their best or what they feel more comfortable doing, no one deserves to be abused or killed, especially if they are not hurting anyone in our society and those who seek their services do so willingly.
The violence against sex workers in Guyana needs to be urgently addressed and efforts to make the profession legal should continue. However, human trafficking also cannot be ignored. Those who are made into sex slaves also need protection. Efforts to end human trafficking and rescue the many who are forced to work as sex slaves must continue.
Health workers and Police Officers need to be held accountable when they abuse or deny sex workers treatment or justice. Those sex workers who have died in this country or have experienced violence must be remembered because despite what some people believe, all lives do matter. Most sex workers want what we all desire – to earn enough to take care of ourselves and our families, to be accepted by society and to be respected.