Criminalisation, legal oppression, stigma, discrimination and violence experienced by sex workers in Europe and Central Asia increase the vulnerability of sex workers to HIV, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and other health risks such as mental health issues. Legal barriers and stigma effectively drive sex workers underground, away from medical facilities and other health care services. This also hinders the collection of reliable data on sexual and reproductive health issues faced by people selling sexual services and makes it difficult to present a clear picture of sex workers’ vulnerabilities to HIV and other STIs in the European region.
Available data shows, however, that sex workers in Europe and Central Asia are much more affected by HIV and STIs than the general population, while the HIV/STI prevalence among sex workers varies significantly depending on the country and sub-region of Europe.
The increased vulnerabilities of sex workers to HIV and STIs are often overshadowed by stigmatising perceptions of sex work and those involved, casting sex workers as vectors of disease and responsible for transmission. This view of sex workers presented in regional, national and local discussions from politically and ideologically motivated and further propel stigma experienced by people working in the sex industry and have often driven the surge of discriminatory and rights-violating policies and programmes, including mandatory testing and forced registration.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the challenge. NGOs that have previously been able to support vulnerable populations have faced increasingly stretched resources and legal restrictions impeding their capacity. As their services have not been able to reach some people, those individuals have experienced greater isolation, vulnerability and risks to their physical and mental wellbeing.