April 24, 2020 / 6:56 AM / a month ago

FEATURE-As Latin America locks down, trans sex workers struggle to survive

MEXICO CITY/RIO DE JANEIRO, April 24 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - W hen the coronavirus hit Brazil, transgender sex worker Aline saw her clients go from about 12 a week to zero.

A month on and her money is running out.

“I turn tricks, I depend on the streets,” said Aline, who asked that her real name not be used. “Now...I’m almost at my limit. Money-wise, I think I can hold on for another 15 days.”

Trade dried up when authorities in Belo Horizonte - the capital of Minas Gerais state in Brazil - issued a city-wide lockdown that emptied the streets Aline works by night.

Her predicament is increasingly common across Latin America, as strict lockdown rules deprive trans sex workers of income, medicine and sometimes even a home.

In a region known for its macho culture, high levels of violence against women and religious conservativism, trans people regularly face discrimination, often making sex work one of the few stable jobs.

In Brazil, where prostitution is legal, about 90% of trans women are sex workers, according to TransVest, a local non-profit that helps trans women in Minas Gerais.

In Mexico City, the government estimates there are about 7,000 sex workers: according to advocacy group Brigada Callejera, about a quarter of the city’s sex workers are trans.

As authorities impose strict lockdowns to slow the virus - there are more than 100,000 cases confirmed across Latin America - many of these women are seeing their livelihood disappear.

“The city is beginning to empty,” said Natalia Lane, a trans sex worker in Mexico City. “What’s happening is very serious.”

Mexico declared a health emergency on March 30, ordering non-essential business to close and asking people to stay home. The country has now recorded more than 10,000 cases.

After the Mexico City government shuttered hotels, where many sex workers live and work, dozens were forced onto the streets, according to Kenya Cuevas, a local activist.

Cuevas runs a shelter for trans sex workers in the Mexican capital but wasn’t planning to open fully until September.

Lockdown changed all that, despite a lack of space and little in the way of furniture. Before the outbreak, she had four residents. Now there are 13. Thirty is her top capacity.

“We don’t have the adequate conditions to protect these women during quarantine,” Cuevas said. “The problem is far beyond what we think.”

STATE HELP...AND HINDRANCE

With lockdowns leaving many people with neither work nor money, governments have stepped up support - with mixed results.

In Brazil, with more than 45,000 confirmed cases, government is giving informal workers a monthly stipend of 600 reais ($114).

While trans sex workers qualify, many will not get their money for a lack of documents or literacy, said Mariah Silva from Conexao G, a non-profit that helps trans women living in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro.

“We’re trying to raise awareness and show them they have a right to this money,” said Silva, who is trans. “But most of them have no documents ... they are invisible to the government.”

Fernanda, a Brazilian trans sex worker who applied for the stipend three weeks ago, has yet to receive it.

But even if the government money comes in, Fernanda – who declined to give her real name - does not know how much longer she will be able to stay off the streets.

The funds, about 60% of Brazil’s minimum wage, would not even cover a third of her rent.

“Any kind of help is very welcome,” she said. “But R$600 is what I make on a good day.”

In Mexico City, the local government is handing out ‘COVID-19 emergency support’ cards to sex workers with 1,000 pesos ($41) for food and medicine.

But according to Brigada Callejera, 500 of the roughly 2,500 sex workers who applied for the cards haven’t received them.

“Maybe authorities have good intentions but the bureaucracy makes the process take time and the girls despair,” said Cuevas.

In Panama, government rules that men and women can only leave home on different days left trans people in limbo, advocates said; earlier this month, a trans woman was detained by police and fined for leaving the house on a ‘woman’s’ day.

Now, some HIV+ sex workers are too scared to go out, even for life-saving antiretroviral drugs, according to Venus Tejada, a trans rights activist.

“They wanted to go get their HIV medicine but they haven’t even been able to leave their house: they don’t know what day to leave,” she said. “My friends are going to start dying.”

ON THEIR OWN

Left without a livelihood and only meagre government help, trans sex workers and local charities are finding their own ways to get by.

Since lockdown began, Cuevas in Mexico City raised about $325 via social media to buy furniture and other basics - shower curtains, cutlery - for the fast-filling shelter.

She also got 100 face masks via a social media campaign called ‘My neighbourhood looks after me’ launched by “Star Wars” actor Diego Luna.

Sex worker Lane and other activists created a social media campaign asking for cash transfers, groceries and toiletries to support older Mexico City sex workers during the lockdown.

“Elderly trans women...are a super, super vulnerable group,” she said.

In Brazil, local charities are providing food and cash to LGBT+ people impacted by the pandemic.

TransVest is giving about 100 reais ($18) per month - about a tenth of the minimum wage - to Aline and 100 other LGBT+ people in Minas Gerais.

In Rio de Janeiro, Conexao G has distributed baskets of basic foodstuffs to about 60 trans women in Mare, a complex of favelas in the city.

But often the help is not enough.

Silva says many trans women in Mare are still forced to sell sex on the street.

One sold the food the Conexao G gave her, Silva said.

“She lives on the street ... and the other girls told me she sold it to buy drugs.” ($1 = 24.6340 Mexican pesos) ($1 = 5.4367 reais) (Reporting by Oscar Lopez @oscarlopezgib and Fabio Teixeira; editing by Katy Migiro and Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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