Sex Workers Are Displaced, Starving And Facing A Dearth Of Healthcare Amidst The Pandemic. Their Future Remains Precarious
She is a sex worker who worked in a brothel of Delhi, making enough money to not have to depend on those who beat her up back home. But now that her savings have dried up, like several other sex workers, she is out of business, she went back to her home town in Utter Pradesh. “I ran away from my abusive home in UP at the age of 18. I wanted to be an actress but got into the sex trade to support myself,” the 26-year-old Shalini (name changed) told PTI.
Another sex worker Rajni (name changed) didn’t even have enough food to feed herself and her four-year-old son, as reported by New Indian Express. “When my son fainted out of weakness two weeks back I decided to move back. I have some relatives in UP who do not know what I do here. I will stay with them for some days before figuring out what to do next,” she expressed.
Starved and broke, at least 60% of sex workers in Delhi returned to their home towns to survive this pandemic. They are worried about their safety and do not want to return to the business until this passes away. And there aren’t any customers. With little rights, these sex workers are the most affected in the pandemic.
And as migrant workers from Maharashtra are being sent back home, sex-workers don’t exactly fit that description, considering the illegal nature of their trade. But 12 such women from the red light areas of Bhiwandi were able to return to Jharkhand in two Shramik Special trains from Kalyan.
Indian Express quoted one of the women, “We were unable to leave our homes and register with the police to board the trains. We earn enough only to be able to feed ourselves from one day to the next. After the lockdown, work came to a complete stop. There were no clients and we were also scared… what if someone whom we meet was infected?” Even though they were receiving rations, she revealed that they “did not have the money to buy gas cylinders to cook.” She then reached out to a network that helps sex workers with medical assistance. With the help of an NGO and local police, the women were sent in those trains to Jharkhand.
These economically impugnable women are relying majorly on the donations made by charities and government authorities if any. In one of the biggest red light areas of Bangladesh, most of these women – who have children – are finding it extremely hard to even buy essentials. “The amount of donations they’ve received from the government does not even cover a packet of powdered milk for the children,” a sex worker told BBC.
Sex workers form a marginalised group with minimal to no access to social security, finances, and availability of healthcare. The current situation has put the marginal group in an ill-fated situation as their fear of a deadly disease is compounded with not being able to afford even regular meals. Several women are unable to afford their HIV treatments and other medical expenses. In fact, their unfortunate situation can possibly pose a threat in their ability to protect themselves and prevent the spread of COVID-19. “As with all aspects of health, the ability of sex workers to protect themselves against COVID-19 depends on their individual and interpersonal behaviours, their work environment, the availability of community support, access to health and social services, and broader aspects of the legal and economic environment,” reads an article on Science Direct.
While several sex workers are seeking agency support to find alternate means of livelihood that requires skilled labour, the stigma around them could be a hindrance. Seema Sayyed, manager of Aastha Parivaar, explained, “They say that even when the lockdown ends, there will be an impact on their work since the fear of the pandemic will continue. They are making inquiries regarding working in packaging units or are asking us to look for similar options.” She further added that the stigma around their profession could make several employers reject them. At the same time, they are also afraid that coming clean to the authorities can lead to arrests and fines, possibly assault and violence by the moral police too.
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In fact, the brothel owners have asked prostitutes to vacate the premises, especially in Mumbai’s Grant Road area. And several of these women have no money to rent out a place and are forced to return to the very hell they escaped. While Germany is thinking of making sex work illegal again, we need to worry about the future of these sex workers as much as they are worried about theirs. Because they are a part of our society that very much exists but has little to no rights and opportunities. And if our governments cannot find it in them to empathise with them, maybe they should simply understand that lack of support can very well lead to the spread of COVID-19 and other diseases.