COVID-19 has ravaged the lives of sex workers across India

By Anusha Sooriyan


Kamathipura in Mumbai, Budhwarpeth in Pune, Sonagachi in Calcutta, North Madras red light area in Chennai, GB road of Delhi, all of these places have a common story of a pandemic hit lifestyle. The sex workers of these Brothels are left jobless, penniless in the middle of the prolonged lockdown. The marginalized groups were neglected in the past and there is no change even now, unable to claim aid, relief measures for the poor/migrants; they are forced to seek work again in this risky environment.



PLIGHT AMID PANDEMIC


Most of the areas where brothels are located are not containment zones, yet they find strong restrictions imposed on these areas which affects their daily livelihood. Earnings have reduced, savings have dried up and borrowings rise to survive. But the future looks grim for sex workers while they battle the debt! “Eating one day, going hungry the next, children dropped out of school because of lack of devices needed for online education and unable to make rent, Covid has brought us misery and suffering. Who are we supposed to ask? What are we supposed to do,” said a sex worker to SIAAP, an organization based in Chennai, which works for the cause of providing sex workers their due dignity.


DESPERATE FOR AID


The workers in red light areas can’t seek shelter as they are thrown out or denied. They can’t access healthcare facilities due to humiliation & negligence. They are denied public services like Public Distribution System (PDS) most often and kept away from the beneficiary lists of most of the programs/schemes of the Government. Aid flows to them in bits and pieces, “Most people who are providing food for the needy do not come forward to help sex workers because of the stigma associated with their work,” Iqbal Ahmed, a Delhi-based social activist to the Caravan Magazine (MS, 2020). Unfortunately, they end up being the poorest of poor in the sleazy street in search of men or clients.


NGO’s and SOCIAL WORKERS TO RESCUE


But their rescue is assured by some like minded philanthropists and NGOs. Relief materials such as basic food, water, healthcare products – sanitizers, masks, contraceptives, sanitary pads and basic medicines reached them. The representatives from SIAAP said, “We have provided relief materials for 500 sex workers in cities across state. The organization is also planning to transfer a sum of Rs 500 each to those residing in Chennai, Theni, Madurai, Thiruvannamalai, Trichy, Dindigul. ”


After the Supreme Court order on the plea filed by the National AIDS Control Organization to provide aid to sex workers, it was directed that the state Governments would have to distribute PDS commodities to sex workers, without questioning their identity and asking for proof. Several state governments abided by the instructions and along with local NGOs especially in Gujarat, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, were supplying dry ration to the sex workers for 3-6 months while the nation was under severe lockdown.


SOCIAL DISTANCING AND AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE


A survey conducted by Pune’s Asha Care Trust, stating that 99 percent of the commercial sex workers in Budhwar Peth want to opt-out of the sex trade. They want to explore alternative livelihood options if given an opportunity (CNBCTV18.com, 2020).The post-Covid times is going to be real testing times for the sex workers. With a high risk of infection and spread of virus or sexually transmitted disease for that matter, it is impossible to indulge in sexual acts for the clients as well as for the women from the brothels.


The All India Network of Sex Workers and the National Network of Sex Workers, National Aids Control Organisation and several organizations have highlighted the obstacles faced by the daily wage sex workers and their future filled with insecurities. The plea of these organizations on behalf of sex workers are simple, i.e. to rehabilitate the FSW (female sex workers), provide them with better skills or education, provide them with identity proofs, find quality job placements. Moreover, through their existing self-employment linkages, entrepreneurs can be established and restore their right to work.

Given the stigma and the social prejudice that revolves around the occupation of sex workers, and the sex worker themselves; the battle for survival looks long and never-ending.


Bibliography

CNBCTV18.com. (2020, October 12). Sex workers need rehabilitation in post-COVID world: Here's how it can be done. Retrieved from CNBCTV18.com: https://www.cnbctv18.com/views/covid-stricken-and-debt-ridden-sex-workers-seek-alternate-livelihoods-what-can-philanthropists-do-7168211.htm


MS, N. (2020, JUNE 12). Struggling amid COVID-19 crisis, sex workers demand inclusion in welfare schemes. Retrieved from The CARAVAN MAGAZINE: https://caravanmagazine.in/health/sex-workers-struggle-amid-covid-crisis


Santhoshee. (2020, July 21). No income, no food, no government relief: Sex workers of Kamathipura pushed to the brink. Retrieved from Firstpost: https://www.firstpost.com/india/coronavirus-outbreak-no-income-no-food-no-government-relief-sex-workers-of-kamathipura-pushed-to-the-brink-8623201.html




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