The health and financial conditions of female sex workers has worsened post-pandemic.
Amisha (name changed to hide identity), has been in sex work for eight years now. The 33-year-old says she has faced an almost total loss of her savings and income since the government imposed the first nationwide lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, in March, last year. A resident of Chaturbhuj Sthan, an age-old brothel in Bihar’s Muzaffarpur district, Amisha says that it is only since the past three months that her clients have resumed coming back. However, only few of them, resulting into 70-80% fall in her usual income.
Like the thousands of other Indian female sex workers who have been negatively affected by the economic freeze, Amisha has received no government support in exchange for her lost earnings.
Predictably, she had to struggle to pay her rent and get necessary medicines for her 14-year-old son.
And the sad part is, they are unable to get any financial help from the government as part of schemes. Nationwide, sex workers have no other option but to often continue unsafe sex, with no bargaining scope, placing their health and lives at risk to support themselves and their families.
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For instance, the Pradhan Mantri Gareeb Kalyan Yojana announced in 2020 is doing no good to the sex workers in a famous brothel of Muzzafarpur. Under the scheme 200 million poor women were to get INR 500 each for three months but to avail this, a Jan Dhan account was a mandate. This is especially difficult since several sex workers do not even have any official documents at all. “We had heard of this help of Rs 500 for three months last year but we could never get that,” says Amisha.
During the pandemic, states identified many categories of marginalised groups such as the transgender community, people with disabilities, workers and migrants for immediate relief. However, sex workers were left out of all relief packages. States historically make assistance contingent on giving up sex work. For instance, the scheme of the Karnataka Government in 2018 under assistance for “exploited” women requires them to provide an undertaking that they will not return to sex work.
Sex workers routinely represent the difficulties they face while accessing identification documents such as Election Commission cards, Aadhar, Caste certificates, ration cards, etc. Many are single women with children and unable to produce proof of residence for long periods of time or show ancestral documents required for obtaining caste certificates. They were denied ration relief packages provided by State governments.
Amisha is not alone. 27-year-old Kirti (name changed), a resident of Mangolpuri, New Delhi has also been struggling to make ends meet, alike.
“We got no help from the government. At least, I did not. Only because of some members of National Network of Sex Workers (NNSW) and their help with the groceries, we could survive this deadly year.”
According to NNSW, the total number of female sex workers in the country would be around 1.2 million.
“Here in Delhi, we started getting some clients post August 2020, when the national lockdown was eased off. But they (clients) would be very unhygienic and even refuse to use protections. Plus, they offered money as less as 200. We had no options but to agree to take health risks otherwise. Hunger makes you go beyond borders,” Kirti, who usually refuses clients below INR 2000 tells The Leaflet.
Sex work has always been a risk to the health and finances of the workers involved. And the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the issues like violence, harassment, and abuse in sex work. Additionally, these women continue to experiencing outright violence, discrimination and harassment at the hands of the police.
Roma Singh (name changed) is a sex worker based in Ranchi. She lives in a village nearby but travels to the state capital for work. She says, “Post pandemic the local police would threaten to lock us up if we were seen roaming on the streets or anywhere outside, for that matter. He indirectly asked me to provide him free service if I wanted to work in peace and I had no other option.” Roma further added that when she tried to speak about it at the local police station, she was abused there.
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Migrant sex workers have to put their health and safety at risk because they are excluded from accessing social and health services, and may not be able to stay at home, physically distance, or stop work in order to survive. Migrant sex workers face exclusion and oppression in more ways than one: including xenophobia, racism, language barriers and precarious immigration status as well as the risk of deportation. As one of the most marginalized communities, sex workers continue to be left behind.
Kumar Divyanshu is an independent journalist who writes and captures rural issues.
Featured image source: CNN