Sex-workers in Ecuador badly affected by the economic aftermath of COVID-19

Characterized by old, white colonial style buildings, the historical center of Quito is recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and normally well visited by tourists – foreign as well as national. It has also become infamous for insecurity reasons, issues with drug and alcohol use in the streets and theft. And then it is one of the areas where you find sex workers offering their services on the streets.

In Quito there are special places, hotels, destined for the sex-workers and their clients. It is only permitted for the workers to offer their services here. If they go with their client to other places, for instance other hotels, those often get closed.

This group has been facing many hard challenges during the years, prohibition, discrimination, health risks etc. and on top of all that, came the COVID-19 pandemic. One thing was the illness per se – but the hardest problem came later. We will get back to that shortly.

Rogelia, 47, who uses that name while on job, has been working as a sex worker in this area for the past twenty years. She lives with her husband, and they have four children. As other colleagues she recalls a historical moment for sex workers in Quito back in 2015. After strong police operatives, Quito’s sex workers – including Rogelia – went demonstrating on the streets, claiming their rights to work legally. The ended up with an agreement with the municipality, allowing these specific hotels as workplaces. Before that, it was tough, Rogelia remembers:

“We could not stand more than five minutes on the same spot without the police harassing us. They would beat us up or take us to the detention,” says Rogelia.

Another result from 2015 is the creating of several organizations, uniting the women and transwomen depending on the sectors in the city where they are working. Rogelia is part of the organization “24 de Mayo.”

Before pandemic times she would work all seven days a week from around 9 am to 18 or 21 in the evening. “I like to be on the street.” She walks around, sits, talks with colleagues, enters their hotel for a while. And so would her day go. She would make 2-3 or 4 points (punto) as they call it. For each point she earns 10 USD (which is the currency in Ecuador). The service costs 13 USD – three dollars go to the bed / the hotel.

 But then came COVID-19 and nothing has been the same for Rogelia and the other sex workers.

“It is hard for me to make a point now. Now I am lucky if I make one point during the whole day. Sometimes I make nothing”.

With the arrival of COVID-19 to Ecuador in March 2020, Rogelia and the other sex workers were told not to go out, they where not allowed to work on the street.  

“They told us it would last one week. Then I called the president of our organization and asked – can I go out now? I felt I was going to die, staying at home, I don’t like to stay at the house. Then after a week the food I had bought for my home ran out. At that moment I lived with my children, two of my daughters-in-law and my grandchildren. We had already been eating small portions for the food to last longer. “

Monica, 40, has been president for the organization “24 de mayo” the six years it has existed. “After the first week it was great suffering for our members. Many began to call me, they did not have food for their children,” says Monica.

Then she and the rest of the organization began to look for donations and Rogelia and her family was able to get food again, even though she was obliged to stay at home – “Quedateencasa” as was the message in Spanish.

Then began the quarantine pandemic meals which for Rogelia was rice, eggs, and tuna from a tin. Until this day, if she has bad moments, with few clients, that is still the menu. 

She says, she was not afraid of COVID-19 – she believes to have had it, experienced several of the symptoms like fever, dry cough, and strong bone-pain – but she did not get tested at that moment to confirm or not. 

According to the president Monica, some 15 of the 68 sex workers from her organization has been registered as having had COVID-19.

For four months Quito’s sex workers were forced to stay at home, forced to not work.

In the end Rogelia got desperate. “The last two weeks I really needed the money. I walked for hours, from the dawn to go meet some clients”.

The clients would contact her via mobile, she could make two or three clients during a morning. She had to go home early to not be caught by the curfew that at some moment began at 2pm.

Rogelia did not get problems with the police, but other colleagues did – they were brought to detention for not respecting the quarantine.

“They were more afraid of seeing their children dying from hunger, than from COVID-19,” explains the president of the sex worker organization.

Others were kicked out from their homes – against the law – because they were not able to pay the rent. But even though the pandemic meant hard times – what came later, has been even worse:

“It is a lot harder now than during the hardest moment of the pandemic”, says Rogelia.

After three months the sex workers would have permit to work again for limited hours per day. The organizations developed protocols for implementing biosecurity measures. That was a condition from the municipality for permitting the workers to return to their work.

The women would use double facemasks all the time and often clean with medical alcohol.

“Now I am honestly a bit tired of using the facemask, Rogelia recons. Sometimes I take it of now. But I never allow the client to do so,” she says. 

As a part of the protocol, the organizations also identified positions that are safer. Like doggy style, legs on the shoulder or on the edge of the bed. The idea is that the two are either not face to face – or with a certain distance. But not all the clients were happy about these new rules, tells Rogelia:

“Some said they don’t like it, that they want it the normal way. Sometimes I would allow other positions, and charge more, take advantage of the situation. They would pay me 5 or 10 dollars more for that. They also offered to pay more to take of their facemask, but I would never allow that!”

The president agrees that it is difficult to implement those new rules with the clients.

“The clients they are not used to us making the rules, there is still a lot of machismo (sexism), I want to do it my way. They don’t want to use the facemask. Some clients want to make their routine with the positions, like always. Some will just leave if they can’t get it as they want,” says Monica.

The workers of the organization make rapid-COVID-tests once a month to try to prevent them from working being COVID-19 positive. 

As it has happened with several so-called vulnerable groups, during the pandemic the sex workers have been pointed out as infection points. In Ecuador there was for instance a report in the television talking about how places with sex workers would be COVID-19 infection points.

“For everyone us sex workers are always the bad ones. The ones spreading illnesses,” says Rogelia.

Time has passed, worldwide we have adopted to this so-called new reality, but normality has not yet arrived at the work situation for the sex workers in Ecuador.

“It is really difficult the situation now, there are not a lot of clients. After the DELTA variant came here, a lot became more scared. Even the young colleagues – who normally earns better – sometimes do not have one single client during a whole day”.

Rogelia shows her COVID-19 vaccination card, laminated. It has become normal for the clients to ask her if she is vaccinated. She laughs, relaxed. “But they never bring their card to show to me!”

Also, the profile of Rogelia’s clients has made it more complicated for her during the pandemic. Many of them are older – or were. “They don’t go out, they take extra care, because they are older. And also, some of my older clients have died with COVID-19,” says Rogelia. 

Then there is the economic aspect. Everyone is in crisis, so people won’t have money to require the services with Rogelia provides, if they barely have enough to buy food.

The president is worried about the situation:

“The economic crisis is global – not only for sex workers. Imagine spending 13 USD for a moment of pleasure, well knowing, that those 13 dollars can be spend at your home. Then they prefer not spending extra. Our service is like a luxury, that is cut off in times of crisis,” says Monica.

According to Monica and Rogelia they calculate their work to have gone down with some 50-80 %  caused by the pandemic. And looking for some other income is really hard too:

“Nobody wants to employ someone with my age, nearly 50. Not even for dishwashing. I am surviving only with this job, ” says Rogelia.

She hopes that December might bring better times – normally, before the pandemic, that would be a good month with gifts and so on.

Meanwhile COVID-19 is just one challenge adding up for the sex workers of Ecuador. They are also regularly facing threats of being forcedly moved away from the historical center.

Monica, the president, talks about a recent case of a man cutting a Venezuelan sex worker in her face and on her hand with a machete. “The police did not want to raise charges, because they say, that we are looking for the trouble as sex workers,” says Monica with indignation in her voice.

And then there is the all-time stigma of the work with sexual services. Rogelia’s family stopped talking with her, when they found out, that she was a sex worker. During the mentioned demonstration in 2015, Rogelia’s face came to the TV screen. As a result, her 8-year-old daughter was bullied that her mother was a whore / hooker (in Spanish: Puta).

But at the same time, Rogelia is happy about her work, she says:

“It has made it possible for me to give my children and grandchildren food and education.  But I don’t tell people, that I am a sex worker normally, because most think, that we are the worst thing existing,”

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Lise Josefsen Hermann is a freelance journalist based in Latin America for more than a decade. She specializes in environmental issues and climate change, human rights, indigenous peoples, migration and more. She is a Pulitzer Grantee and her work has been published with media like Al Jazeera, BBC, Deutsche Welle, Danish Broadcasting Corporation, Danish Development Research Network, El Pais, New York Times, and Undark Magazine.