August 16, 2020
Kareena Kapoor played a sex worker in movie Chameli.

Paid sex goes through roughest time because it runs contrary to physical distancing norms and no govt supports these workers

Shailaja is a sex worker who lives in Budhwar Peth, Pune. The area houses over 350 brothels and 3,500 sex workers.

In the past four months since the lockdown due to Covid-19 pandemic, not only has work dried up but she has also been unable to see her three children who live in a hostel.

“I could pay the Rs 6,000 rent of our room for one month, took loan for another month but now I am not paying because there are no clients,” she says. In the interim, Shailaja has taken up work with Saheli Sangh, a non-profit that works towards the welfare of sex workers but the pay is barely enough to cover the basic food and living expenses.

Sexual interactions, including kissing, breathing and fluid exchanges, though an integral part of people’s lives, run contrary to physical distancing norms required to avoid contracting virus thus unconditionally stalling source of livelihood of people like Shailaja. Covid-19 and subsequent restrictions have made life harder for them. “We normally charge around Rs 300 per client and are ready to work even for half of the amount but there is no business,” she sighs.

In India, sex work is criminalised under the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956. Over the years, it has given stimulus to the marginalisation and harmful stigmatisation of the sex workers who are constantly misrepresented as brothel keepers or trafficked victims.

On April 8, UNAIDS and Global Network of Sex Workers released a statement underlining how criminalisation along with marginalisation poses a threat to sex workers amidst Covid-19 and hence, they must not be left behind in responses to the pandemic by governments.

Sexual interactions run contrary to physical distancing norms to avoid contracting coronavirus thus stalling source of livelihood of sex workers. Subsequent restrictions have made life harder for them

There are over 30 lakh sex workers and about 1,100 red light areas in India. Although brothel-based sex work is fairly prevalent, many work from streets or their homes.

“Without work, the two main difficulties that have arisen are the inability to pay rent and lack of nutritious food for those living with HIV/AIDS,” said Nisha Gulur, Vice President of National Network of Sex Workers (NNSW). “Those in remote areas are struggling even to access HIV/AIDS medicines because these are only disbursed at district headquarters and public transport is not yet fully operational.”

In response to the pandemic, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced relief packages to the people in the informal sector. These include doubling of ration entitlements free of cost under the National Food Security Act and dispensing of Rs 500 directly in the Jan Dhan Yojana bank accounts of females, among others.

To avail any of these benefits, the Aadhaar card is mandatory. Sex work, being largely informal and illegal, remains unprotected, leaving the workers without any rights and privileges. “Many sex workers don’t have any Aadhaar or ration cards and hence cannot avail benefits from any of these relief measures,” says Kusum, president of the All India National Network of Sex Workers. 

Non-documentation remains one of the biggest concerns among sex workers. Documents required to apply for an Aadhar card include PAN card, bank passbook or ration card. In case of absence of these documents, attestation of the local corporator through an NGO could be taken. For a ration card, one requires a current proof of residence along with other documents. 

Sex work, being largely informal and illegal, remains unprotected, leaving the workers without any rights and privileges. Many sex workers don’t have any Aadhaar or ration cards

In 2011, Saheli Sangh managed to get bank accounts opened for over 500 women sex workers. “Very few got Rs 500 in their accounts as a part of the Jan Dhan scheme,” says Tejaswi Sevekari, the organisation’s executive director. “Even if they did, it helped only for some time.”

“We negotiated with local government which provided us with some dry ration kits but the quality was not good. Now we are raising funds from private establishments and other NGOs to provide dry ration kits to sex workers across seven states in India,” says Gulur.

While the cities are opening up, this has barely helped the sex workers. “Even with nationwide relaxations, their situation will take at least a few months to improve. With negligible earnings in past few months, they have nowhere to go,” says Pushpa Achanta, associate director of Bengaluru-based Solidarity Foundation which reached out to over 3,500 people belonging to the marginalised communities, providing them with essential needs and information.

Alternative livelihoods remain a non-starter

A 2013 study by the Institute of Development Studies, surveying 3,000 sex workers across 14 states in India, found that 64.6 percent came from poor economic backgrounds, 50.2 percent had not attended any school, while only 3 percent had attended college.

The low literacy rate impacts access to information and digital platforms. “Many do not own smartphones and even if they do, they would not have Google pay or Phone Pe for them to be able to start online services from home,” says Gulur.

There are many other constraints, including privacy concerns for those living with families, inadequate physical space, inaccessibility to a phone or not knowing how to operate it. With garment factories and shopping malls closed and a decline in domestic maid work, finding alternative occupations is a big challenge.

“A few of the sex workers connected to us had started their own small-scale businesses after receiving training in entrepreneurship by some of our partners and collaborators,” says Achanta. “Now these businesses have either declined or shut down. Even if someone wants to start their own business, the support for funding is hard to come by.”

Low literacy impacts access to information and digital platforms. Many do not own smartphones and even if they do, they would not have Google pay or Phone Pe for them to be able to start online services from home

Since many of the sex workers already have an experience with other informal occupations, they are aware of the low wages and inhuman working conditions there. “I don’t want any other work. Our main work is this work, so why should I look for any other” asks Beena, who came to Pune from Solapur around 20 years back and lives with seven other women in one room.

Concerns Over Health

Around 1.6 percent of the sex workers’ population carried Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) in 2017, said a survey by UNAIDS.

When treatment for other diseases has been sidelined due to the pandemic, getting access to healthcare has emerged as one of the major concerns for sex workers.

Besides transportation issues, there are shortages of medicines in the anti retroviral therapy (ART) centres for HIV/AIDS as well. “Local community-based organisations and peer educators are helping them in certain areas. They are going to the hospitals to get medicines that are then delivered to the affected people,” says Gulur. “It’s been very difficult since the peer educators are working without any salaries.”

Sex workers are also highly vulnerable to psychological distress. A 2017 study in Shillong had found that over 45 percent of the women sex workers had been through major depression and anxiety disorders while 11 percent had substance disorder.

The incidence must have risen further in current scenario. “Few of the women connected to us attempted suicide and self-harm due to stress during the lockdown. We launched a multilingual mental health helpline in April, and other organisations have also followed,” informs Achanta. “Many of these services have been overwhelmed, increasing their operational volume. Yet there are some who hesitate to come forward considering that mental health is still a taboo in our society.”

Over 45% women sex workers had been through major depression and anxiety disorders while 11% had substance disorder. This must have increased during the pandemic. Many attempted suicide

Saheli Sangh has trained some of the female sex workers as peer educators, who are counselling women undergoing stress either over telephone or in-person. “With schools and child care centres closed, all children are home. So, there is extra burden on the mothers to take care of their needs,” says Sevekari. “And for those whose kids are in hostels, they are unable to visit them; the only source of communication is through phone.” 

Urgent Govt Response Required

There is no specific response from the Centre or state governments for sex workers, putting their human rights at risk. “We are planning to do a detailed survey with our community members across seven states, tracking their needs and issues they are facing, after which we will take up advocacy with the government,” says Gulur.

Saheli Sangh has been talking to the Maharashtra government for support which led to a government resolution directing district officers, block protection officers and counselors to provide help to sex workers. “Although the initiative is first of its kind, we are yet to see it translate into action on ground,” says Sevekari emphasising that unless there is some funding support from the government in such times, life would be very tricky for the sex workers.

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