COVID-19 Woes: Business Being Zero, Sex Workers Starving. But Does Anyone Care?

Bhubaneswar: The government’s decision to impose a strict lockdown to curb the spread of coronavirus triggered a mass exodus of migrant workers from different cities as most economic activities came to a standstill. But for thousands of sex workers living in cities across India, there is nowhere to go.

The complete loss of income has plunged one of the most vulnerable and marginalised groups into the depths of anxiety and deprivation as they struggle for survival.

The government doesn’t want to accept that there’s prostitution in the country. It’s the elephant in the room. The 20 lakh crore package announced by the government has nothing for the benefit of sex workers.

Last month, the Global Network of Sex Work Projects and UNAIDS released a report on the hardship and discrimination faced by sex workers during the Covid-19 pandemic worldwide and urged countries to ensure that their human rights be respected and fulfilled.

While the official figures of sex workers in India is below one million, activists who are working in the field estimate the figure to be anywhere between 1.25 to 3 million.

In urban red-light areas, multiple women live together in squalor, in tiny dilapidated rooms which stand cheek by jowl on narrow streets, where social distancing is impossible to follow. The financial situation is made worse because sex workers often have no savings.

Now, with no cash coming in, they fear not being able to pay rent and may end up without a place to live in. Most of the migrants went home, but these poor women have nowhere to go. Even the homeless and beggars are being put in shelters, but nobody acknowledges the existence and plight of sex workers.

On March 26, the government announced an allocation of Rs 1.70 lakh crore under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana to help the poor fight the battle against coronavirus. All female account-holders under the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (PMJDY) received cash transfers of Rs 500 per month for three months. Sadly, very few of the sex workers have  Jan Dhan accounts. In fact, most of them have no documents at all.

The core clientele has traditionally been migrant workers and men who are away from their families. Given that this group is also grappling with the horrific economic effect of the lockdown, sex workers — themselves daily wage earners — are staring at months without business. Food provision is the least of their worries as many sex workers have diseases, especially high prevalence of HIV-positive and tuberculosis cases. Access to proper healthcare has become increasingly difficult due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The usually busy street of Malisahi in Bhubaneswar is now mostly empty, with only a few women waiting outside their homes. This red-light area of Odisha’s capital city has nearly 250 sex workers. A few have left for their villages, while around 150 have nowhere to go. Most of them have small children and are victims of human trafficking.

The few we met all came from remote districts, some from West Bengal and quite a few were Bangladeshis. Many of them have families to support in their villages. Childcare has become a huge problem as day and night care shelters have shut down, forcing children to spend the entire day in cramped brothels.

I came to know about their sad plight from the report of a young journalist, Rana Laxmidhar. The brothel keeper, an old matron, told me, “My priority is to keep them safe. We make do with whatever food we get. Many of the girls and children go hungry. There is no help from the government; a few NGOs lend support. Even after the lockdown is over, there will be no business. The clients will worry about whom the sex workers have come in contact with. There is no future for us”.

She complained that even basic sanitization of that area was not done by the authorities. They only cover the main road and don’t enter our places, she informed. Gram Utthan, an NGO, is providing them relief.

“Even during lockdown, a few of them desperately search for customers. We have shut down the entire area, no movement is allowed,” a local police official said on the condition of anonymity. Even he agreed that their condition is pitiable.

Ms Namrata Chadda, social worker and women’s rights activist, says: “It is sad that nobody is talking about them. They work, they are human beings too. But there is no concern about them in society.”

Ms Bharati Girdhar, from the Punjabi Arya Sanatan Biradari, has arranged 50 ration packs for distribution among sex workers and assured more assistance.

When will sex workers be considered to be human beings whose basic needs deserve to be met? This is an ideal time for the government to intervene and tackle trafficking and forced prostitution. The government should think of an exit strategy that includes transitional housing, bank loans and alternate employment. They should take on board  NGOs, civil society organizations and the sex workers to draw up effective policies for their rehabilitation.

The government must also announce an economic package for sex workers.

If red light areas reopen, the cost of hospitalization and ICU admissions for sex workers will be very high. The cost of reintegrating sex workers is much less than the economic cost of reopening red light areas. The red light areas should be closed indefinitely to protect Indians from Covid-19.

(The author, a member of INTACH, is a researcher and historian)

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