A wall mural by Advani Art Project in Sonagachi, Kolkata, in an attempt to empower sex-workers.

Plight of Sex Workers: Updated: Sept 27, 2020

For several months now, a strange stillness seems to have gripped the red-light areas in India. While the maxi-clad women still hang about doors, ready to beckon customers in, their gazes now, are barely met and remain unreciprocated. Ever since the government declared a complete and unprecedented lockdown in the month of March, the unemployment rate in the country appears to be on a steady rise, and no one has suffered more, perhaps, than the sex workers of the country.

India is home to more than 650,000 active sex workers, scattered across the multiple red-light areas in the country, each of them now nearly non-functional. Kolkata’s Shonagachi, which witnessed about 15,000-20,000 customers each day, now stands abandoned. (News18) Residents of Mumbai’s Kamathipura face daily battles trying to secure enough food for their families, while Delhi’s GB Road, home to about 2,225 sex workers, no longer retains its regular bustle.

The idea of intimate touch that accompanies commercial sex work has terrorized regular customers in an era of social distancing, leaving monumental impacts on the sex-workers of the country. While some have been forced to leave the city in search of work, others have had to resort to alternate, and at times more exploitative means of securing wages, including taking loans against a steep rate of interest.

RATIONS AND GOVERNMENT AID- OR THE LACK THEREOF 

In April 2020, the joint efforts of the Global Network of Sex Work Projects and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS brought forward a comprehensive report that outlined the added hardships that had befallen sex workers across the world. The report urged countries to fulfil their human rights obligations, and make necessary provisions for those worse affected by the pandemic. 

The statement reads:” … Sex worker-led organizations from all regions are reporting a lack of access to national social protection schemes and exclusion from emergency social protection measures being put in place for other workers, particularly where sex work is criminalized. Whenever and wherever possible, sex workers are responsibly self-isolating in response to governments’ calls. However, when they are excluded from COVID-19 social protection responses, sex workers are faced with putting their safety, their health and their lives at increased risk just to survive.” (UNAIDS Report)

Their appeal, however, seems to have left no dent on Indian policies. A few days after the announcement of the nationwide lockdown, the central government announced a relief package of INR 22.5 billion that promised to take care of the “welfare concerns of the poor and suffering workers.” While specific packages were allotted to economically marginalized women, including widowed women, sex workers remained absent from the government’s agenda. (Toward Freedom)

In an environment where survival became a daily struggle, most women living in red-light areas turned to government rations to make ends meet.  An interview with the workers of GB Street revealed that the residents received a limited ration of 2kg of wheat flour, 2kg of rice and half a liter of edible oil every other day. While the restricted amount is enough to sustain the workers themselves, it is hardly sufficient to support those dependent on them. 

Meanwhile, in Chennai, government rations had been restricted to those with valid ration cards only. And since most sex workers do not have a permanent address, they cannot apply for one. (New Indian Express)  

Several women, however, have bigger battles than simply securing their daily diet. Some have to provide for their families in other states; some have to garner funds for their children’s education. Kamathipura’s Soni (name changed) has a six-year-old son who’s monthly educational fee is as high as INR 1,500, which was previously paid out of her own pocket.(Business Insider) Meanwhile in Chennai, Padmaja has to tend to a 20-year-old son who’s mentally ill. Not having a ration card, she cannot avail the minimal government aid, and struggles to make ends meet. (New Indian Express)

On the other hand, NGOs across the country have taken up arms to assist sex workers in their battle for survival. Organizations like Mumbai’s Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP), Kolkata based Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, and Kat-Katha from Delhi have taken to the streets in an attempt to provide food, financial aid and basic medication in some of the biggest red-light areas in the country.

Prerena, an NGO working across the red-light regions of Mumbai, have helped several workers secure alternate means of securing a livelihood. Meena(name changed), a former sex worker a Kamathipura, recalls how she went from sex-work to selling children’s clothes with the help of the organization (Mumbai Mirror). “There’s dignity in it and I am learning new skills, understanding financial transactions and getting to know different tricks of this new trade,” she says, vowing never to return to her former trade again.

OF HYGIENE AND HEALTHCARE

The paranoia that has seized the world in the light of the pandemic seems to have pushed the community of sex workers, already ostracized, further into the margins. The mandated laws of social distancing seem to fall through with regards to them. In most urban red-light centers, around 3-5 women are forced to live in narrow, dilapidated rooms in brothels that grow cheek by jowl across the street. The shared bathrooms are generally used by the entire building, with about 50 women queueing up to use it every morning.

Access to healthcare has become increasingly tough since the pandemic scare. A woman in Kamathipura, who started throwing up blood, was refused treatment by a hospital, with her profession used as an excuse. (Al Jazeera) A second worker from West Bengal is in dire straits, with a toddler and a physically challenged 4 year old to care for. Another woman told IndiaSpend that the loss of income meant that she could no longer buy her HIV medication, which costs around 5,000 per month. (IndiaSpend)

“KEEP TRANSGENDERS AWAY”

“Keep transgenders away as COVID spreads through them”, claimed some posters that cropped up across the country in March.  No one knows who made them, but in a country gripped by equal amounts of paranoia and queerphobia, they seem to contain a seed of truth. 

Fear works in unusual ways, and has, in this case, worked to fuel transphobia in a broken nation. If sex workers are in dire straits, transgender sex workers are twice crippled. A detailed report published by The Citizen in June recorded that only 1% of the transgender population had received government aid thus far. Most transgender workers lack valid identity proof, leaving them ineligible to apply for relief.

The lockdown situation has proved to be twice as bad for those who are HIV Positive and need monthly Anti-Retroviral doses. While some no longer had easy access to medication, others dealt with the emotionally turbulent issue of coming out as HIV positive to their caregivers. (Hindustan Times)

‘UNLOCK’, AND THEN SOME


With the ‘unlock’ procedures underway, sex work is bound to resume throughout the country in the upcoming months. Although this would work to alleviate the workers’ poverty to some extent, the whole notion of touching in this pandemic-afflicted world would render them newly vulnerable.

In a New Delhi brothel that is now operating again, safety guidelines are barely put to place. Disinfectants and sanitizers, being fairly expensive, are hardly put to use. A report filed by The Print notes how the women at the brothel had tried to enforce masks and sanitizers on their customers, but could not insist any further in fear of driving them away. They know the potential hazards that may arise in this case, but simply cannot afford to lose whatever little income that arrives with each customer.

Certain red light areas, such as Pune’s Budhwar Peth or Mumbai’s Swami Shradhanand Marg, have issued new safety guidelines that mandate the use of masks and sanitizers for customers coming to its brothels.(News18) However, considering the general societal attitude towards sex workers and their welfare, it stands to be seen how well the policies are established and maintained. 

Check out our article on “All you need to know about feminism” by Esther.