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Belgium lockdown lifted for sex workers but COVID-19 concerns flourish

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By Greg Lory, Joanna Gill
Prostitutes wait for clients in a street of Nice southern France, Thursday, Nov 21, 2013.
Prostitutes wait for clients in a street of Nice southern France, Thursday, Nov 21, 2013.   -   Copyright  AP/AP   -  

Operating on the margins of society, the financial struggles of sex workers in Belgium during lockdown have been largely hidden from view.

After three months, the government allowed sex work to restart from June 8. For self-employed prostitutes, it means they can start earning again.

We spoke to Marie, a sex worker in Brussels, who told us how she had to dip into her pension savings to stay afloat.

"I'm still going to start over with €9,000 in debt because there are things I couldn't pay," she said.

NGOs have stepped in to help those who didn't have any savings to draw on.

Maxime Maes, a coordinator at UTSOPI (Belgian union for sex workers), explains how they have set up a system of food distribution in northern Brussels, serving at least 130 people per week.

"Some have lost their housing, we are facing quite dramatic situations," he said.

Health hazards

Beyond her financial concerns, there are also health hazards to take into account. Marie also has a chronic disease, which means she would be vulnerable to infection.

"I don't go back to work with a smile on my face but I have no choice," she said. "When we start working again we will have to explain to customers that we have to put on a mask, him, us, that we need a barrier. Will the customer accept this?"

Among 26,000 sex workers in Belgium, some with more stable financial situations prefer to wait to receive clients to avoid new infections.

That is the case for Hot Marijke, a sex worker in Flanders. She wants the government to push back the date for restarting sex work until September 1, which would bring it in line with the Netherlands.

"If nothing changes I will sue the government because they have to turn back that rule," she said.