Sex workers in Maharashtra are struggling to make ends meet, but not risking contracting COVID-19. They are certain sex trade will not stop, and have devised new methods to 'stay safe'
Sudhir Patil of National Network of Sex Workers, and his colleagues, clicked while attending a Zoom meeting.
“If the customer wears a mask, it is fine. If he does not wear a mask, he will not be entertained. If something happens to me, who will look after my children?” asked Rajni (name changed), a 30-year-old sex worker who came to Kamathipura – Mumbai’s largest red-light area – from Kolkata some six years ago. “The customer has to wash his hands; there will be no mouth-to-mouth. We won’t even take our clothes off – just do the kaam (job) and leave!” she said.
The COVID-19 pandemic changed almost everything about the world we live in. The rules to avail services of sex workers have changed too.
Rajni used to earn around Rs 8,000 in a month. Out of this, she paid Rs 4,000 in rent. She takes care of six children – four, her own, and one each of her siblings – and the youngest one lives with her, others in hostels.
Sex workers in the country, for obvious reasons, have been struggling from the time the nationwide lockdown to combat the spread of the coronavirus was imposed on March 25, 2020. Kamathipura has about 5,000 sex workers, living with their dependents.
Rajni is aware clients will not pay the way they used to, even if the trade resumes. “Who has money now!” she quipped. Before the lockdown, she used to get two-three clients, some paying even Rs 400. Since the lockdown began, she and her child have been managing grocery or cooked food donated in their basti. She’s exhausted her savings and is desperate for the trade to resume.
A large number of their clients were migrant workers who left the city during the lockdown.
Mumtaz Ansari, 31, another sex worker in Kamathipura, believes she can quit sex trade at will. “It is not that my family will starve, we will manage. But I want my eldest daughter to complete her education. I want her to become somebody, then I can rest,” Ansari told Gaon Connection. She is from Jharkhand and was trafficked to Mumbai in 2002. She was only 13, then.
Ansari’s daughters, aged 18 and 11, study in a private school in the city while her two-year-old son, who was a premature baby, still requires medical care. Her 70-year-old mother also lives with her. The Rs 12,000-15,000 she used to earn before the lockdown was barely enough to keep Ansari’s family afloat. Her income dried up immediately after the lockdown. Some clients have started returning, but earnings are only a fraction of what it used to be. Her house rent of Rs 3,300 has not changed.
Sex workers have devised new ways to continue the trade, ensuring safety. Face masks and sanitisation before engagement has become the new normal. Ansari and her peers make clients wash or sanitise their hands before approaching them. “We will tell the customer not to touch our faces. Both of us have to wear masks,” she said. Ansari said that the clients complied with the new rules. “They also know of COVID-19, they understand,” she said.
“No, that will not happen,” Ansari responded on being asked what if the client wanted to kiss her. “We won’t even take off clothes. We anyway don’t operate without a condom. If I die, who will look after my family?” she asked.
In the Netherlands, sex workers have resumed work but they were advised to avoid heavy breathing and kissing to help reduce the risk of transmitting COVID-19, a Reuters report said.
Sudhir Patil, treasurer of the National Network of Sex Workers (NNSW), and a male sex worker (MSM- Men having Sex with Men) himself, from Sangli, said, “The business will not stop. If one area is sealed, it will move to another.”
Patil, through NNSW and his non-profit Muskan, has been actively involved in guiding sex workers on how to build and preserve their immunity. He has been hosting Zoom meetings and sending them advisories on WhatsApp such as using balloons for breathing exercises, warm water gargling, Yoga. NNSW has distributed vitamin and zinc tablets among members and is training members to use masks and sanitisers. NNSW has over 1.5 lakh members in seven states of India including female, male, and transgender sex workers. The UNGASS-NACO India Progress Report of 2010 estimated there are 1.26 million sex workers in India.
“Customers have to wear a condom anyway. Henceforth, they have to wash their hands and wear a mask. We will also be wearing masks. We have told members to only have peno-anal sex to reduce direct contact between the two,” said Patil. On being asked what if clients insist on kissing, Patil said: “No, we have to politely say no to them. We say, “Let all of this be over, then we will do that.”
“We will use the same strategy we used during HIV. We won’t trust the client nor will the client trust us. It doesn’t matter to us if one has COVID-19 or not. We have to take precautions,” said Ayesha Rai, Patil’s NNSW colleague, who lives in a brothel in Miraj’s Uttam Nagar.
“Sex work has resumed on a small scale. All sex workers and their clients are wearing masks, some are even making their clients take a bath before the activity, “said Amit Kumar, national coordinator, All India Network of Sex Workers (AINSW). “Some have kept thermometers to check the client’s body temperature and look for basic symptoms of COVID-19,” he added.
All the sex workers Gaon Connection spoke to were averse to phone sex or video-call sex and deemed it dangerous. Recently, a sex worker found her video leaked. This is a serious threat since most sex workers participate in the sex trade without their family’s knowledge. Clients not paying after using the service was another concern.
“The customer will not pay! They may leak the video on YouTube. Nobody knows about my work in my village. I have to think about my children as well,” said Ansari, when asked about phone sex. However, Rai said some clients sent money to sex workers simply out of concern. “We have a few clients or lovers with whom we have a connection,” she said.
According to data collected by NNSW, Maharashtra has 65,000 sex workers. Out of this, 20,988 are female. Of the female sex workers (FSWs), only 8,730 have ration cards. That is, only 42 per cent FSWs have ration cards. In other words, 68 per cent FSWs do not get the benefit of subsidised ration from the government.
According to a Rapid Assessment Study done on ‘COVID19 and Red Light Areas’ by Mumbai-based civil society organisation Prerana in April,in Kamathipura, 46 per cent respondents had borrowed money from informal sources between April 1 and 15. In the same period, in Falkland Road nearby, 54 per cent respondents had taken small loans. Most have borrowed between Rs 1,000 and Rs 2,000 money that will most likely be added to their previous debt. By April 15, most respondents only had enough grocery stock to last for six to 10 days. The study had 217 respondents, the majority living in Kamathipura or Falkland Road.
“All physical contact workers are going to suffer because of COVID-19 here. Unfortunately, the government is not responding the way it should. Apart from rent, electricity bills are becoming a problem because the landlords cut the power supply,” said Meena Seshu founder of Sangram, a non-profit. “Most sex workers’ children live in hostels. Now, the kids have come back to their mothers. Now, they not only have to feed themselves but their kids too – this is a nightmare for them,” added Meena.
Sandhya Nair’s mother is a former sex worker. Nair is studying psychology in a private Delhi-based college and is in Mumbai currently. She works with Kranti, a non-profit, and has spoken out against the stigma facing children of sex workers several times. “While some akkas (home owners) are lenient, some are asking for rent from sex workers or threatening to evict them. This causes anxiety among family members, including children,” she said.
Many HIV positive sex workers faced some trouble in the first month of the lockdown in accessing their anti-retroviral therapy, but non-profits credited the government for streamlining the same. However, people with HIV also require nutritious food, a far-flung possibility for sex workers right now.
“I don’t see sex workers trying to leave the profession. In Mumbai, some sex workers had started selling vegetables outside some restaurants in Kamathipura, but the police drove them away. They might take up something like this temporarily,” Amit said.
Sex work in India is governed by the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956, by which it is illegal to solicit. Mumbai-based activist Harish Iyer feels soliciting should be legalised.
“It is important to legalise soliciting to ensure sex workers also get the protection of the law. If soliciting is made legal, their right to dignity, livelihood, privacy will be ensured,” Iyer said. “Not everyone in sex work is forced into it. Also, even if they are forced into it, if they want to continue it, it is up to them. It is like a labourer using his body to earn a living,” he added.
The debate on legalisation aside, sex workers and non-profits believe a recent modeling study done by researchers from Yale School of Medicine and Harvard Medical School was a blow to the trade.
As per the study, if red-light areas are kept closed following the lifting of the lockdown, the peak of COVID-19 cases can be delayed by 12 days in Mumbai alone. The study also said the closure of red-light areas can reduce cases by 21 per cent in Mumbai in a 45-day period and that deaths can be reduced by 28 per cent in Mumbai in the first 60 days. Sex workers Gaon Connection spoke to have seething anger against this study.
“Some researchers are claiming COVID-19 cases will increase due to sex work. We want to ask them, does COVID-19 spread only because of sex work? We were targeted when HIV came as well. Instead of targeting people of a particular community, target the virus,” Patil said.
Whether the findings of this study are accepted or not, sex workers are in deep financial distress. As an immediate step, organisations have demanded the government to provide relief to sex workers including unemployment allowance, temporary documents that enable them to access welfare measures, inclusion in schemes for migrant workers, a moratorium on rent for six months, the moratorium on loans to bring them back from the brink of destitution.
AINSW has demanded the government provide Rs 5,000 to all sex workers every month as aid, include them in ration kits distributed through community-based organisations, also arrange for online learning facility for children of sex workers, address their mental health issues among other demands.