Covid-19 brought the whole world together in an unimaginable way. As death and disease mounted, social distancing became the new norm. Yet as it is in most social crises, the pandemic laid threadbare the existing social and economic inequalities. As countries forced lockdown measures to curb the spread of the virus, the poor and the marginalised set – the migrant population in urban areas, the farmer in the rural sector and millions in between engaged informally in the labour market – fell like the proverbial nine pins. This segment, already living in financially precarious condition and falling outside the social protection mechanisms found themselves in a precipitously vulnerable situation, staring at death and destitution.
While much has been written and said about the destitution of migrant workers, it is with some consternation that one looks at the crisis and its destabilising effects on women. It is by now a well understood and accepted fact that women are disproportionately affected by conflict and crisis of this sort. True hunger cripples every human at the physiological level in a similar way. The physiological symptoms of stomach cramps, lowered levels of glucose and/or reduced vitality are similar across gender, age group, nationality etc. However, similar is not akin to same. In the light of women’s role as nurturers, poverty and hunger has a disproportionate effect on them. It is now a well-accepted fact that women in poverty have to work harder to get food, fuel, fodder and water. Many women have to walk several extra miles to source the same. So, the quantum of household work increases manifold times.
Additionally, they open up to exploitative mechanisms which abuses their body, labour and reduces their status even more. Poverty therefore, in direct and indirect ways, exposes the vulnerability of women, denying them the fundamental rights to health, nutrition, education, property, representation etc. This is the feminization of poverty that has now forced scholars and activists around the globe to agree that since poverty affects women in a far more ruthless ways, poverty alleviation programmes need to address this section in a far more aggressive manner. Given the economic distress that is unfolding, women need to be an integral part of any policy initiative.
In any discussion on feminisation of poverty or work, one sections stands out for its peculiar position – sex workers. Already living in the margins of society, criminalised, exploited and denied every fundamental right, it is these women who are facing devastating effects of the lockdown and social distancing mandate. Most sex workers, wherever they may be, work in abominable work conditions. In fact, the very fact that this kind of exploitation should qualify as ‘work’ is ironical; many people, given the choice would opt out of such an exploitative, physically taxing, brutally dehumanising ambit as their ‘preferred’ work/profession. Most people don’t grow up dreaming of joining the sex market. They are either forced into it – due to destitution, penury, or trapped by middle men or ‘dalals’ who entice them with promises of love, a good life or a dignified livelihood.
This is a market where work conditions are pathetic, the hardships disproportionate and the status of women much lower than her counterparts working in other fields. Since they are dehumanised by the pretentious society, the plight of them in ordinary times often escapes the purview of intellectual pundits and activists. Now the pandemic has brought with it a fresh set of woes for the sex worker. While most of them are no strangers to destitution and the denial of rights, now they also face disease and death. The lockdown has forced many out of their homes. With pending rents, most have been turned out on the streets. Ironically, the very streets where they peddled their bodies now stand deserted. Their incomes have dried. As social distancing plays out, these women are finding the cost too high to bear. How does one conduct business which largely involves physical closeness and intimacy in the days of social distancing?
Consequently, many have been turned out of their houses despite the government’s plea to landlords to desist from evicting tenants. With little social security, women in this sector have become more vulnerable with even lowered access to health facilities and food benefits. Most of them do not have ration cards and are outside the ambit of the PDF system. Civil society efforts are directed towards a sizeable group of individuals; but unfortunately, there are very few persons and organisations actively working for this group.
Many sex workers are reporting a lack of access to social protection schemes and emergency medical measures that have been put in place. Plus, there are reports of crackdowns and forced eviction of migrant sex workers. Drop in demand doesn’t only translate to less work, but also less safe work. Negotiations post the pandemic will be harder to drive and what little ground has been gained in terms of educating them about their medical rights will be swished aside in great hurry.
Sex work is often not looked as ‘real work’. Its demand arises when basic physiological necessities have been met. It is often considered ‘luxury service’, especially for those catering to the upper segment. Do sex workers only offer sexual gratification or does a sizeable part also include intimacy? Intimacy, love, belongingness, empathy…are also basic human needs, and the sex worker stands at the very vortex offering these to her client/customer in a non-judgemental ambience. The valuation of the services far exceeds the cost.
Therefore, in such pressing times there is a need to address the role of the sex worker even as we engage ourselves in providing a healing touch – in tangible and intangible terms – to the scores of informal sector workers who stare at a loss of livelihood, starvation, disease and death. One of the ways in which sex workers can be brought within this ambit is by building a database through the network of NGOs like Srijan, Muskan, Darpan etc., along with the administrative machinery, so that real cash can be put into their hands.
Most of them do not have savings to fall back on and are also unlike to have Jan Dhan accounts. There, it becomes imperative for the society and the administration to track them down, build trust riding on empathy and get them to stay afloat. This is what Noble Laureate Abhijeet Banerjee suggests. Another initiative would be to distribute temporary ration cards so that food grains are made available to this section. A single pronged approach will not do. Ultimately the challenge will be to help many of these persons to seek other legitimised work post the lockdown. Work where dehumanisation, exploitation, violence, objectification, commodification of bodies and equally of their consent, must not be the operatives.
Featured Image Source: Quartz