Malawi government has moved to address grievances the female sex workers have been raising in relation to the strict Covid-19 preventive measures the government is implementing to tame the coronavirus disease pandemic.
The Covid-19 preventive measures had reportedly forced sex workers to reduce their charges by 30 percent as the largest constituency of their clientele had stopped frequenting entertainment joints and bars.
This prompted sex workers, under the banner of Female Sex Workers Association (FSWA), to take to the streets of Lilongwe where they protested the measures.
They asked the government to uplift the ban on the time for opening bars and other entertainment places from the current 8pm to 12pm from Monday to Thursday.
They also asked the government to remove this ban from Friday to Sunday when they say their business is usually at peak.
The association warned that it would be forced to take unspecified action if the government did not address their concerns.
This week, the government has moved to address these grievances. On Saturday morning, the Office of the Presidential Advisor on NGOs, the Ministry of Health and Population and the Ministry of Gender, Community Development and Social Welfare engaged the leadership of FSWA in a dialogue to understand each other on what each party can take in combating the pandemic while protecting and promoting the welfare of the sex workers.
Over 30 sex workers - drawn from all the 28 districts, attended the meeting, which took place at Yamikani Lodge in Salima.
FSWA executive director Zinenani Majawa said the economic impact of COVID-19 resulting from the widespread closure of businesses and industries has put increased financial strain on communities, particularly in segments of the population that are already vulnerable such as female sex workers.
Zinenani disclosed that since the pandemic started and following the ban on public gatherings and order by city councils to close bars and bottlestores by 8pm, majority of the sex workers across the country reduced their charges by 30 percent as most of their reliable clients complain of being broke.
"Female sex workers' income has dropped and, in some weeks, they spend days without making any money. Most of them do not have money for food, rent, medicine since most public health service points are operating partially," she said.
She added that the pandemic, just as is the case with other health crises, is exposing existing inequalities and disproportionately affecting people already criminalized, marginalized and living in precarious health and economic situations, often outside social protection mechanisms.
Zinenani further lamented that sex workers are being sidelined in the in government's Covid-19 response services.
"We therefore recommend that police should stop abusing and taking advantage of the plight of sex workers. The government should provide sex workers with safety nets," she said.
Chief Gender Officer in the Ministry of Gender, Community Development and Social Welfare, Fred Simwaka, said the ministry has developed progressive policies and legal instruments that protect and promote the rights of every woman, including sex workers.
Simwaka therefore asked the sex workers to utilize the legal frameworks and policies to safeguard their rights.
Meanwhile, the Presidential Advisor on NGOs, Martha Kwataine, emphasized that the government understands the challenges sex workers face in this era of the pandemic; hence, it is taking all the necessary measures to address them.
However, Kwataine warned that lifting the ban on onsite consumption of alcoholic beverages would pose serious threat to the life of both customers as well as bar owners.
"I therefore pleaded with you to understand the government on why it is taking these decisions. They are for your own good and the good of your clients. It's not as if the government simply wants to punish you," she said.