COVID-19 And Sex Workers: Damned if they do, damned if they don’t

In the six months since COVID-19, sex workers have lost all work and have had no support from the government. But recently, the Supreme Court directed the Centre and the state governments to provide monetary and ration support to sex workers without insisting on any identify proof.

Pankaja Srinivasan
| Updated: October 8th, 2020

COVID-19 has exposed the vulnerability of the community that routinely faces abuse, discrimination, extreme poverty and lack of social acceptance.

Sultana, a resident of Ajmer in Rajasthan, swings between anger and grief. It’s been more than six months, but the cries of sex workers, and their hungry children, that she works with, refuse to die out. 

“These sex workers are neither dead nor living. They do not have twenty rupees to buy flour or milk to feed their children. I know of pet dogs that are being fed more, but the sex workers have no money for their next meal,” she lashed out, her eyes welling up. Sultana is associated with an Ajmer-based non-profit Sarvoday Samiti Rajasthan, which works with sex workers. “In this corona crisis, both the government and the society has forgotten sex workers; it is as if they do not exist,” she lamented.

These are not unfamiliar cries for help. The last six months of COVID-19 have stripped many segments of society of their basic requirements leaving them hungry, jobless, moneyless and with no recourse to medical help.

But the sex workers are worse hit than most. They remain invisible and largely unheard, their lives reduced to penury in the wake of COVID-19. Theirs is a livelihood that depends on ‘touch’. How do they deal with physical distancing? Their income has disappeared along with their clientele. While there is no definite data on how many sex workers there are in the country, a government study pegged it at 2.8 million in 2014, but the unofficial figures are a lot higher. 

It is only now that the Supreme Court of India has taken a note of the sufferings of sex workers in COVID-19 and directed both the central government and all the state governments to provide both financial and foodgrains support to the sex workers who are almost starving as their work has come to a standstill and they have no come for months. 

 “We moved the court on behalf of the sex workers. We spoke to various collectives across the country to find out what the problems they were facing. It was quite clear that they had lost all their income since March,” Tripti Tandon, the Delhi-based advocate who drafted the application to the Supreme Court on behalf of the sex workers, told Gaon Connection. “The court clearly understood that the sex workers had nowhere to go and is firmly in support of them,” she added.

After the Supreme Court directive, in West Bengal, the government has come up with a temporary food coupon that is distributed to the sex workers, explained Tandon. The National AIDS Control Programme, that has around eight lakh sex workers registered with them, community-based organisations and other non profits are being enlisted to reach out to the sex workers. The national legal services authority chaired by a supreme court judge, along with the state and district legal authority chaired by a high court judge and a district judge respectively are to ensure that the relief reaches the sex workers. “They can make things happen on the ground,” said Tandon. 

The recent directions of the apex court are expected to provide some succour to the hundreds of thousands sex workers in the country who belong to the most marginalised and vulnerable section of the society.

Sex workers remain invisible and largely unheard, their lives reduced to penury in the wake of COVID-19.

The shadow women

In Bhojipura village, in Phagi tehsil in Jaipur district, Rajasthan, situated 45 kilometres away from the state capital of Jaipur along the National Highway 48, it is not uncommon for the women of the Nat community to be engaged in sex work.   

A muddy path leads to a part of the village that seems shrouded in silence. There is a cluster houses here where the Nat community lives. Some of the houses are locked. People have not returned home yet after the lockdown, the neighbours informed Gaon Connection.  

But Renu (name changed) is home, which is no more than a small room. A cot and a small fan are visible from outside where she sits waiting for a customer to show up. The 30-year-old  has been a sex worker from the age of 14, she told Gaon Connection. Poverty forced her into the sex trade and she had to drop out of school. She worries about her younger sister, who she fears will meet the same fate if she does not get an education. 

Most sex workers could not benefit various government schemes as many of them have no identification cards.

She is also concerned about her parents who live in the same village and are ailing. “We have to remain in this trade. Unless we get educated, find an alternative job or are allowed to marry inter-caste, nothing is going to change,” she shrugged. 

COVID-19 has exposed the vulnerability of the community that routinely faces abuse, discrimination, extreme poverty and lack of social acceptance. “Everything has come to a screeching halt. The sex workers perhaps are the hardest hit, because nobody sees them or hears them and they are getting no help at all,” Kusum, president of the All India Network of Sex Workers, based in Delhi, said during the recent ‘Gaon Cafe’ show.  There are no welfare measures, ration packages, health camps, nothing for these marginalised and vulnerable workers. 

The sex workers ply their trade at brothels, on the streets or from their own homes. “Those working in designated brothels or red light areas are marginally better off because some help is reaching them,” said Kusum. It is the street workers and those who work from home who are the hardest hit. Many of them do this work without the knowledge of their families and, with the lockdown, their source of income has dried up completely. Most of them have used up any savings they had, have been forced to take loans at very high interest or are dependent on charity, she said. 

During the lockdown, the central government announced various schemes to benefit citizens affected by the pandemic. The Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana assured that at least two thirds of the population would benefit from the food scheme. Everyone under this scheme is entitled to get five kgs of wheat and rice per month for three months, along with pulses. The free ration is distributed through the public distribution system. However most sex workers could not benefit from this as many of them have no ration cards, Aadhaar cards or any other identification.

However, on September 21, the Supreme Court has directed that the central and state governments should reach free rations and other essential commodities to sex workers without them having to furnish any proof of identity. It has also stipulated that a report should be submitted to it within a month listing all that has been done in this regard.

Many non-profits are working with the community to address their problems and distribute hygiene-related material to them, but these measures are woefully inadequate.

Discrimination that is old as sin

There are issues that go beyond the lockdown – of ostracisation, discrimination, contempt and abuse the sex workers and their families routinely face. Those in the rural areas are worse off as they are clearly marked out, with no anonymity. So they have no hope of finding other kinds of employment either. Then there is the very clear and present matter of caste discrimination, as Renu of the Nat community, pointed out to Gaon Connection

“Who says that there isn’t untouchability anymore? We face social discrimination everywhere we go. If we go to a shop and the shopkeeper finds out we are of the Nat community, his attitude and behaviour towards us changes instantly,” she said. 

“Even our men suffer this social discrimination. They are not allowed to work in many places and they are forced to break stones for a living. Very often they have to hide their identity in order to find work,” she complained. 

While discrimination is a perinnial problem, Renu and other sex workers like her in Bhojipura are caught in another bind. They have no other sources of income. The pandemic has ensured that they cannot ply their trade and with no money, they are finding it difficult to make ends meet. “Normally, I earn about Rs 15,000 to 20,000 a month. Now I earn no more than three or four hundred rupees a day, if I am lucky. Sometimes less,” she told Gaon Connection

“The ‘civilised society’ do not like it if anyone from the sex trade seeks another employment. There are entire communities for whom sex-work is the designated profession. A girl born into the community inevitably ends up in sex-work. She is not trained for anything else and nor will she be accepted by the ‘others’,” Kranti Khode, who works with Udaan a non-profit that works for the upliftment of sex workers, told Gaon Connection

“Our society judges a community on the basis of its female ‘virtue’ and so we view sex trade not as a mode of livelihood but as a depraved activity,” Bhanwar Meghvanshi, a social worker based in Bhilwara, Rajasthan, told Gaon Connection. “However, we need to view it from the perspective of those communities to understand whether they too consider it immoral. And as far as social discrimination goes, even if we keep aside the sex trade stigma, the Nat community will still face caste-based discrimination,” pointed out Meghvanshi who works with the Nat community.

Thousands of sex workers continue to live hand to mouth, waiting, without much hope that things will look up.

Uncertain future

After lockdown has lifted, some of the sex workers are back at work, fully aware of the dangerous consequences. “Sex workers are not sure if they themselves are corona positive, and are reluctant to get themselves tested, or do not have the means to do so,” said Kusum. “These women are scared and often bathe in cheap sanitisers after entertaining their customers. This might adversely affect their health. And anxiety and fear are leading to mental health problems amongst them,” she added. 

While many non-profits are working with the community to address their problems and distribute hygiene-related material to them, supply them with condoms, and encourage them to have their annual HIV check-up, these measures are woefully inadequate. “NGOs on their own can do only so much. The government machinery has failed them. It must take big decisions towards their rehabilitation,” stated Meghvanshi.  

The sex workers were unable to access any kind of health services during the lockdown. There are many of them who are on medication for AIDS, are being treated for sexually transmitted diseases, or are pregnant. They really struggled to get medical help, Amit Kumar, co ordinator of the Delhi-based All India Network of Sex Workers told Gaon Connection

In the meanwhile, thousands of sex workers continue to live hand to mouth, waiting, without much hope that things will look up. As Renu in Bhojipura continued to wait for a customer to appear,  she murmured, “Corona has stopped our income. The road ahead is bleak.”

With inputs from Mohd Anees, Jaipur.