A report has found that sex worker activists are among the most at risk human rights defenders in the world. Published on Thursday by Front Line Defenders following a four-year investigation, it found activists face multiple threats and violent attacks. Their visibility within their communities makes them more vulnerable to abuse, the report said.

Here, sex worker activists from Tanzania, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar and El Salvador share their experiences.

Clara Devis, Tanzania Community Empowerment Foundation

As an openly transgender woman and human rights defender, I am often targeted by the government and society because they think I’m working to trigger homosexuality in the community and “turn straight people gay”.

In June last year, I was hosting a trans woman in my house because she needed help, and my cousin was staying. I was out when I got a phone call from my cousin asking me to come home at once. He wouldn’t say why, but I knew something was wrong. I rushed in and found my cousin and the trans woman tied up on the floor. They had been assaulted and were bleeding. My television and a few other things had been taken from my room.

Clara Devis, director of Tanzania Community Empowerment Foundation
‘Everyone has the right to equality and to be protected,’ says Devis. Photograph: Erin Kilbride/Front Line Defenders

I learned that the men who did this were looking for me. They knew I worked to defend and protect the sex worker and LGBTQI community. They knew my organisation’s office had relocated a few weeks before and wanted to know where it was now. They wanted my computer, and all the information on it.

As far as I know, the police have not initiated an investigation. Incidents like this instil a lot of fear in me. I feel insecure and am scared of being kidnapped, put in prison, tortured or killed. I’m doing human rights work for a group that is illegal and I’m living in a hostile environment. Things can happen any time, including to my family as a way of getting to me.

Sometimes I get demoralised and demotivated and want to quit. But then I remember that I’m part of this community and the rights I’m fighting for are mine too. Everyone has the right to equality and to be protected.

Cherry Maung (not her real name), Ama Myanmar

I work in a small city, so it’s easy to find out who lives where. The police know about my organisation and that we work to defend the rights of female and trans sex workers. Sex work is illegal in Myanmar and the police look down on us and anyone associated with us. They sexually harass me and my staff members, asking us for sexual favours. We refuse, telling them that we are working for a rights organisation. The police respond with threats: “Stop pretending to be something you’re not. How much can you protect yourself?”

One day, I got a phone call from someone claiming to be a trans person; they told me they were in danger. I was about to set off to go and help when I got another call – from a policeman – telling me not to, because some other officers were planning to ambush me and arrest me.

When we first opened our office, the police investigated what we were doing, who our staff members were. They watch the office and our homes.

Police come to the office in civilian clothes and pretend they want to get information. Some female police officers pretend to be sex workers and ask for health services. I know how to recognise them and politely explain what we do and who our services are for. At the beginning, I felt scared and contacted our organisation’s headquarters to ask for advice, but now I’ve learned how to manage these situations.

A sex worker rights defender in Kachin, Myanmar, with her face hidden shows her bandaged arm to Front Line Defenders
A sex-worker rights defender in Kachin, Myanmar, whose arm was injured after she was beaten by police on the street. Photograph: Erin Kilbride/Front Line Defenders

It’s difficult to talk about the police because of the current situation, but when we get our elected government back, my message for them is that they should not abuse their power. The same message goes to those working in the courts. They should treat everyone equally, respect us and recognise our work.

Sabina Bermet (not her real name), Tais Plus, Kyrgyzstan

I’ve been working to defend sex worker rights since 2000 and have been threatened and attacked by clients, the police, government departments and far-right militants for my activism. I struggle to remember a lot of it because I try so hard to forget.

Some years ago, a former government department set up to combat human trafficking was subjecting sex workers to forced testing for HIV and sexually transmitted infections. My colleagues and I collected cases of it happening and wrote a report that we sent to the prosecutor’s office.

After that, the department’s employees threatened me several times over the course of a year, on the phone and in person, with arrest and prison. They also threatened my family, saying: “Don’t forget you have a daughter. You don’t know what might happen to her.”

A sex worker rights defender in Karakol, Kyrgyzstan shows Front Line Defenders a map of brothels in the city where activists conduct outreach to at-risk sex workers
A sex-worker rights defender in Karakol, Kyrgyzstan shows a map of brothels where outreach activists provide help. Photograph: Erin Kilbride/Front Line Defenders

There was the time sex workers contacted me, asking to arrange for a TV crew to come and film the police bribing and threatening them. We documented everything and a report came out on the evening news. The next day, I went to the same spot with some health workers in an ambulance to do outreach.

As I stepped out of the vehicle, I was arrested and detained by the police. They threatened me, shouted obscenities and accused me of selling drugs. They only released me when other sex workers turned up and said it was their idea to contact me about the TV crew.

The police detained me again in order to get revenge for the TV report while I was on the streets selling sex. They held me for 24 hours, accusing me of getting underage girls into sex work. They humiliated me and said I would be put in a cell where I would be raped. This has happened before to other sex worker activists.

Reina Espinoza, Colectiva Venus, El Salvador

Ever since President Bukele addressed the nation on television during lockdown and said that human rights organisations were covering for the enemies of the government, the situation has been getting worse for us. He listed types of non-governmental organisations, and included feminist and sex worker ones.

Reina Espinoza, a sex worker rights defender from Colectiva Venus in El Salvador
‘The only way to be heard is to keep doing this work ourselves,’ says Espinoza. Photograph: Erin Kilbride/Front Line Defenders

When the president says on national television that we are a front for opposition to the government, he is encouraging the police and armed forces to repress us and be violent towards us. The power of the presidency is being used against all NGOs but sex worker rights organisations in particular. What we’re seeing now is a total disregard for human rights discourse and activists in general.

A well-known sex-worker rights defender was detained during quarantine for going out to buy medication for her diabetes. She was held for more than 40 days. We all believe that it was because she was recognised as a human rights defender that she was held for this unlawful period of time in deplorable conditions.

Due to the economic crisis in El Salvador, there are more women starting to do sex work now. They are in a more vulnerable position. They don’t know what rights they have as sex workers or how to proceed whenever they experience violence.

We know there is a sector of society that will not listen to us because we are women. If we’re sex workers on top of being women, a bigger part of society will not listen to us. The only way to be heard is to keep doing this work ourselves.

Contributor

Interviews by Sarah Johnson

The GuardianTramp

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