India has an estimated 1.2 million sex workers who have no clear legal standing, thus making these marginalised women ‘criminals'. To break the coronavirus chain, social distancing and isolation are crucial. But, how are women sex workers coping in such a scenario? A Gaon Connection report from Hanuman Tekdi, a red-light area in Bhiwandi, Maharashtra
Amid lockdown, Lakshmi, an ex sex worker in Hanuman Tekdi, Bhiwandi, Maharashtra is learning to read and write English from another sex worker, Jasmine
Lakshmi is in a hurry to wrap up the lunch. She has her English tuition class to attend. In her 50s, an ex-sex worker, she lives in Hanuman Tekdi, a red-light area in Bhiwandi city of Thane district in Maharashtra.
Since March 21, all the 300 sex workers in the area have shut shop in keeping with the call for social distancing and isolation to break the chain of coronavirus. No one knows when the trade will resume.
“The situation here is very bad. Unless sex workers work on a daily basis, they cannot feed themselves and their families,” Lakshmi told Gaon Connection. “We are poor, marginalised daily wage women whose existence is kept under wraps, and during a calamity, such as this coronavirus outbreak, no one comes to our rescue,” she added.
The concerns expressed by Lakshmi are what sex workers across the world are facing during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. On April 8, UNAIDS issued a press statement drawing attention to the particular hardships and concerns facing sex workers globally, and called upon the countries to ensure the respect, protection and fulfilment of sex workers’ human rights.
The statement noted that “as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, sex workers all over the world are experiencing hardship, a total loss of income and increased discrimination and harassment. As sex workers and their clients self-isolate, sex workers are left unprotected, increasingly vulnerable and unable to provide for themselves and their families.”
Back home in India, with 1.26 million women sex workers, reports are pouring in about difficulties faced by these women. For instance, there are news reports of HIV positive sex workers not getting access to their medicines. In Kolkata’s Sonagachi, Asia’s largest red-light district with over 8,000 women sex workers, food is becoming a major concern.
Meanwhile, in Hanuman Tekdi, sex workers and their families have a bleak future. With no work in hand, Jasmine, a sex worker is giving free English tuitions to other sex workers in the colony. Every day, post-lunch, Lakshmi spends two hours at Jasmine’s ‘room’ learning the English alphabets.
“I studied till class 4 in a Telugu medium school back in my home state. But I have forgotten everything. I cannot even read bus numbers,” she said. “Although a bit late in life, but I am enjoying learning to read and write English. In any case, all women here are idle these days,” she added.
For the last five years, Swati Singh is working with the sex workers of Hanuman Tekdi. She is associated with a local organisation, Shramajivi Sanghatana, and runs a clinic for these women and supports children of the sex workers. The total population of sex workers and their family members in Hanuman Tekdi is estimated to be around 500.
“As coronavirus gripped the country, with Maharashtra turning out to be a hotspot, we knew sex workers, whose entire work is based on ‘touch’, will have to shut shop till things subside,” Swati told Gaon Connection. “But these are hapless women, who, if they do not work for two or three days, go hungry. There is no one to support them and most of these women have no legal ID proof to access the government schemes,” she added.
On March 20, a meeting was held with all the sex workers of Hanuman Tekdi informing them about coronavirus and its threats and precautions.
“The only way to keep this disease at bay is to maintain a safe distance of one metre and wear a mask. So, it was decided sex workers will stop their work from March 21 till the virus comes under control,” Jasmine told Gaon Connection. “Initially some women resisted, as no work means no food and starvation. But, if we contract the disease, who will look after us or treat us? So, everyone agreed no outsiders or clients will come into our area,” she added.
Sex workers in Hanuman Tekdi live in rented rooms and pay monthly rent between Rs 2,000 and Rs 4,000. Their monthly earnings, during normal times, range between Rs 10,000 and Rs 50,000. These women are the sole breadwinners and often send money back home to the villages to support their families and educate their children.
Coronavirus pandemic has brought everything to a halt in the country. Since March 25, the country is under a nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of the virus. Both the Government of India and the state governments have launched various schemes and financial packages to support the poor and needy in these difficult times. Some are offering financial support whereas others are home delivering dry ration.
However, access to most of these benefits is linked to official ID proofs — ration card, Aadhaar, etc. But, a large number of sex workers lack official ID proofs. Their work is still not considered legal in the country.
To address the concerns of poor and marginalised in the lockdown, the Right To Food Campaign, an informal network of individuals and organisations committed to the realisation of the right to food in India, has been pushing for PDS (public distribution system) ration to all the needy irrespective of ID proofs.
The Campaign has demanded that the “PDS entitlements be available to anyone who demands it, at least for the next three months. The delivery mechanism can be worked out to ensure that people arrive at the ration shops and other collection points in turns so as to not crowd.”
“The All India Sex Workers Network has been an active participant in the Right To Food Campaign and we strongly support three months free PDS ration to all the sex workers in the country,” Dipa Sinha, an expert on public policy, nutrition and public health told Gaon Connection. She is an assistant professor with the School of Liberal Studies at Dr B R Ambedkar University Delhi.
Of the over 300 sex workers in Hanuman Tekdi, only 30-40 have their ration cards. For instance, Lakshmi has a ration card on which she has managed to get five kilogram (kg) of rice and five kg of wheat from the local ration shop. But Jasmine does not have a ration card. “But we cannot survive on rice and wheat alone,” said Lakshmi.
As soon as the lockdown was announced, Swati reached out to her friend circle asking for support to these women.
“The Robin Hood Army in Thane, which works to get surplus food from restaurants and communities to the less fortunate, came to the rescue and has been providing food to the sex workers,” informed Swati. “The local tehsildar, Shashikant Gaikwad, is also helping us with dry ration,” she added.
The dry ration is being packed into ration kits and distributed among the sex workers on a weekly basis. This is ensuring these women do not go hungry in an unprecedented health crisis. But, that alone is not enough.
“One dry ration kit includes rice, two types of pulses, oil, salt, turmeric powder, red chilli powder, sugar and tea. In some rooms, only one woman lives, so the ration kit sustains her for a week. But in others, there are three to four women. They cannot survive a week on the kit alone,” said Jasmine.
Apart from dry ration, sex workers are also desperate for medical care. “We have no PHC [primary health care] centre in our locality in Hanuman Tekdi. The nearest government hospital — Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital, Bhiwandi — is about three kilometres away. We have to depend on local private clinics, which adds to our cost, and these clinics are shut due to coronavirus,” said Jasmine.
Khan stresses on the need for a government clinic in Hanuman Tekdi for sex workers and their children. “These women have special medical needs. Some need HIV drugs and others have gynaecological issues. In a lockdown, they cannot access medical care, which is a big concern,” she said.
As per a 2018 study by UNAIDS, globally, sex workers are 13 times more at risk of contracting HIV, when compared to the general population, because they are economically vulnerable, unable to negotiate consistent condom use, and experience violence, criminalisation and marginalisation.
That is why in its recent press statement on April 8, UNAIDS has called upon the countries to ensure access to national social protection schemes for sex workers, including income support schemes; an emergency financial support for sex workers facing destitution; stopping raids on sex workers’ homes and sex work premises and ensuring that all measures to protect public health; and an immediate end to evictions and access to appropriate emergency housing for homeless sex workers.
Sex workers must not be left behind in the response to COVID-19.
(Names of sex workers and ex sex workers in the story have been changed to protect their identities)