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Behind the Closed Doors: The Being of Sex Workers in India amid Covid

The pandemic has squeezed humanity unequivocally and added social and mental woes to the lives of people. The ubiquitous virus led to lockdowns, curfews and restrictions across the country which led to thousands of sex workers being left in the lurch. The inability to find and perform their work in Covid times has led to their livelihoods come to a standstill.

India is home to approximately 20 million (2 crores) sex workers. It is not hidden from anyone that most sex workers enter the industry before the age of 18 and are often forced into the profession through human trafficking. Leading an already miserable life, the pandemic has left India’s 9 lakh female sex workers out of work. They are now struggling in debt and profoundly exposed to the virus. You can be antagonistic to their presence, but you cannot turn a blind eye to their perpetual state of being.  In a country that shies away from talking about  SEX, prostitution is a social crime. A woman with no character, no dignity and probably some might question her mere existence. 

The Unrecognised Community

If we would like to see a mirror, we should ask ourselves some important questions before divulging our judgmental selves to their predicament. What leads women to this business? Who are the customers?

The business may run under the covers and closed doors, but you cannot deny the business crossing the confines of class and social status.  One of the brutal realities is that most of the women working as sex workers are victims themself, trafficked and forced into the business. Left with no choices, they give up the fight. According to independent research published in Live Law, the commercial sex-working industry globally is worth $186 billion. Most sex workers enter the business before the age of 18 and are often forced into the profession. Prostitution is illegal in India, hence, the ambiguous laws and hostile attitude towards their existence leads to immense exploitation of the workers and hinders aid or any protection. 

The areas like Sonagachi (Kolkata), Kamathipura(Mumbai), Budhwar Peth (Pune) and Delhi’s GB Road are the most commonly known big red-light areas, the names which you take with hesitance are a world in itself. With regular markets of machinery and vehicle parts along the streets, the areas have hundreds of brothels above them. 

No Place To go

Like the already haphazard structure of the informal sector of the country, the state of sex workers is gloomy. With no legal security, social recognition, the sex industry is dark and irregulated.  Most red-light areas are populated with undocumented migrants, hence they escape the chances to be beneficiaries of government aid/schemes, or getting formal loans.

“Until the end of June, there was no dhanda [a colloquial term meaning ‘business’] for the sex workers. In Mumbai, the police vigilance was so strong that there was no activity in the brothels of Kamathipura,” Priti Patkar, co-founder and director of the NGO Prerana Anti-Trafficking, Mumbai, told DW.

“While there was relief in the form of food grains and utilities, this did not help the women with their rent and debt payments,” she said.

 According to the National Aids Control Organisation, by the end of 2020, over 90% of commercial sex across Delhi, Maharashtra and West Bengal were edged to permanent debt with no source of income. 

 A Pune-based non-profit organisation conducted a survey in Budhwar Peth, India’s third-largest red-light area, which houses nearly 3,000 commercial sex workers. The study revealed that more than 85% of sex workers had taken loans during the pandemic. The study also found that 98% of them took loans from brothel owners, managers and moneylenders, making them financially vulnerable. 

The category of ‘vulnerable’ somehow skips them too. Last year when the centre and the state governments announced covid relief fund to vulnerable populations such as migrant labourers, unorganised labourers, women and farmers severely impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, no such package fell for women in the sex business. 

 “When the lockdown happened, each and every community was affected. The government seemed to care about all and offered them some form of relief but there has been nothing for us,” Lalita Harijan, who has been working as a sex worker in Karnataka’s Belgavi district for over two decades, told PTI.  (according to a report last year)

 In present times, receiving vaccines is a challenge in itself. The lack of vaccines, the debt, added to domestic violence and the inability to provide for their families have supplemented their worries. 

The Added Agony: Vaccination and Misinformation

Vaccination is as important for the sex workers as the rest of us, probably more important as many sex workers live with co-morbidities. Often the sex workers suffer from HIV, complications from sex reassignment surgery, drug addiction, hormone intake, which puts them in a vulnerable category to Covid. 

To put in figures, Delhi alone has at least 55,633 female sex workers and 9,496 transgender persons, who are under the “High-Risk Category” under the National AIDS Control Programme of the Unione Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. 

Last year, Maharashtra was the only state to extend help to sex workers. It announced financial assistance of INR 5,000 per month, only to female sex workers with identity cards issued by the National AIDS Control Programme. 

However, the lack of proper identification, including documents with date of birth, residence proof and self-identified gender identity is a huge barrier for the workers in accessing the Covid-19 vaccination drive and leveraging government aid. 

Ayesha Rai of the National Network of Sex Workers (NNSW), a collective of five million sex workers across the country, says that some of the women believe that Covid 19 will not affect them or the vaccine will cause tumours and blood clots, according to reports. 

In June 2021, the All India Network of Sex Workers ( AINSW), a community of 5 million sex workers, wrote to the Delhi government to demand to provide vaccines for sex workers.  The spokesperson of the Delhi government responded with the assurance of  “vaccination for such communities is under active consideration.”

Way Forward:

The extraordinary times have led to extraordinary ways to earn a living, many NGOs were able to collect grants for women to set up microbusinesses, like tea stalls, or onion and potatoes. Likewise, through the help of various NGOs only, women were employed to make masks and sanitisers, used by the community themselves, according to reports. 

The way forward for the dire circumstance of female sex workers is taking initiative and reaching out to them on humanitarian grounds for food and cash assistance, along with raising awareness about their situation. 

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