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With the extension of the lockdown, sex workers stand to face the worst of the situation. During a lockdown like this, their plight just worsens as they lose their source of income.
“If the situation persists, there will be only one option left for me: suicide,” says Neha (whose name has been changed to protect identity), a 23-year old sex worker from Delhi.
When we are finally turning the COVID-19 crisis conversation to minority and vulnerable groups in society, we continue to disregard the plight of sex workers. They are facing a haunting and heightened reality during this particular time thanks to the ban on their livelihoods since the lockdown. Sex workers, like migrant workers, fall into the unorganised and daily-wage sector. And just like them, the sex workers, too, have lost their only source of income to help them sustain their lives.
Though the government has set measures and attempted to help migrant workers, next to nothing has been done to help sex workers. The government’s $22.5 billion packages may not benefit or offer any financial relief for sex workers and remain rather vague with regards to allocation.
The very essence and foundation of their livelihood is a crime under the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act of 1956. Under the Act it is illegal to organise commercial sex and engage in sex sale in public.
Yet, in the nooks and crannies of congested and choked urban cities, brothels and prostitution establishments remain a lucrative business; lying the shadows of modern-day urban inequalities. Now, the red-light districts of Kamathipura and Sonagachi in Mumbai and Kolkata are bare and desolate in the wake of the lockdown.
The Global Network of Sex Workers Project and UNAIDS has sounded the alarm about the threats that this pandemic will have on them due to the discrimination they face. In countries like India, where sex workers are still shunned and treated as outcasts, their conditions in these times are of mounting concern.
They face a double-edged sword right now as they are impacted by the combined effects of poverty, patriarchy and societal ostracisation for what they do. This leads to them falling into the cycle of poverty, poor education and social exclusion.
They are poorly paid, with a large proportion of their daily wages being taken by landlords or the establishments they work for. Many sex workers in Mumbai are single mothers supporting their children, some of whom are sex trafficking victims. A portion of sex workers are transgenders forced work in this sector as they are shunned by their communities and find it difficult to find work.
Moreover, the approximate number of sex workers remains far from clear, making it even harder for them to be reached to receive any form of aid. But it is estimated that around 10 million women work in commercial prostitution across the country.
Hygiene and mental health issues that impact sex workers continue to be a problem too as women in red-light districts have to live in near ramshackle conditions. This makes social distancing impossible to follow.
Many of them are at-risk groups as they suffer from pre-existing medical conditions such as HIV and Tuberculosis. Some of them do not even have access to menstrual hygiene supplies such as sanitary products.
Local nonprofit organisations remain the only source of hope for sex workers trying to provide daily rations and necessities. Organisations and nonprofits such as Kat Katha are working to provide for sex workers. So far, they have reached out to about 800 of them in Delhi. The Women’s Commission of Delhi has implored authorities to aid them in some way.
In cities like Kolkata, multiple pleas have even been made for the government to lower the rent for them over the next three months. In fact, the state of West Bengal has even decided to secure and allocate food rations for them to fight starvation in the red-light districts of Kolkata. The NGO, Durbar has started crowdfunding campaigns to try and assist nearly 100,000 sex workers by providing them with ration, medicine and money.
Many LGBTQIA+ groups have also launched appeals to help these women. And have urged people to look past their prejudiced pre-conceived notions about them. The charity, Citizens for Justice and Peace, is one of the first organisations to shed light on this crucial issue and take action. They are being supported by organisations like Kranti. It is a charity operating to help children and sex workers in Mumbai, the city with one of Asia’s largest red-light districts with commercial sex trades in Kamathipura.
Another psychologist Aanchal Narang is also doing her bit to help out the sex workers in Mumbai. She organised a fundraising campaign to prepare and donate ration and sanitary kits which included a mask, a soap and a sanitiser along with essential food items. Her fundraiser, initially aimed at raising two lakh rupees which was achieved in the first day itself.
Overall, the sad realities that sex workers are faced with at this point in time reveal yet another dimension to social and gender inequality today. Especially how women and LGBTQ groups are relegated to the fringes of society. These struggles are painful yet important to learn about as we see how their lives hang by a thread during these extreme conditions.
Picture credits: Still from movie Lakshmi
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Shivani is currently an undergraduate political science student who is passionate about human rights and
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