Worried about present, despairing over future, sex workers fight for survival in age of social distancing

The last six months have been a nightmare and one that shows no signs of ending, say several community members and those who fight for their rights.

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representative Image


Will life ever get back to normal? As COVID-19 continues to spread, it's a question that haunts all sectors of society but perhaps sex workers most of all with the fear of being pushed further into the shadows in an age of social distancing darkening their present and clouding the future.

Eating one day, going hungry the next, their children turfed out of school because of lack of devices needed for online education and unable to make rent, the last six months have been a nightmare and one that shows no signs of ending, say several community members and those who fight for their rights.

When the lockdown happened, each and every community was affected. The government seemed to care about all and offered them some form of relief but there has been nothing for us, Lalita Harijan, who has been working as a sex worker in Karnataka's Belgavi district for over two decades, told PTI.

It's about immediate relief but also revival for a line of work that involves physical proximity and may have led to social stigma but also a livelihood on which their families depend, she said.

There have been efforts to increase awareness about sanitising their premises and also innovations such virtual ways of servicing clients, but to little avail.

Lalita would make between Rs 400-Rs 1,000 a day before the pandemic struck but hasn't earned a rupee since the nationwide lockdown that came into effect in March.

With no income and a family of nine people to feed mother, son and daughter and their spouses, their three children and herself -- survival is almost impossible, she said.

My son and son-in-law worked in a cloth factory but their employer stopped paying them during the lockdown. Initially, we got some help from NGOs etc, but now mostly it is about eating one day, and going hungry the next day," she said.

Lalita added that she has also not been able to pay the monthly rent of Rs 2,500 for her house in the last few months, and fears eviction in the near future.

Organised under various groups, the future stretches bleak for women like Lalita, one of the estimated eight lakh sex workers in the country

With the end of the pandemic nowhere in sight, their livelihoods based on physical contact are in peril.

On September 29, the Supreme Court directed all states to provide dry rations to sex workers identified by the National AIDS Control Organisation and legal service authorities without insisting on any proof of identity.

The states were asked to file compliance reports within four weeks.

The bench, comprising Justices L Nageswara Rao and Ajay Rastogi, said it would deal later with the aspect of whether financial assistance could be provided to them during the period of the pandemic.

A week earlier, on September 22, the apex court had directed the Centre and state governments to help out the community. This was a few days after the Kolkata-based Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee approached the apex court for support in the face of the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown.

But there are hurdles aplenty with many sex workers not being documented, said rights activist Meena Seshu.

Sex workers move frequently to escape identification by family or for better earning opportunities. They also hide their identity due to the stigma attached to their work. This makes it very difficult to provide relief work though government channels that ask for ration cards and other identity and address proof, Seshu said.

Recognition of sex workers as informal workers and their registration is important so they are able to get worker benefits. They should be provided with at least temporary documents that enable them to access welfare measures such as PDS and insurance benefits, Seshu, who founded SANGRAM, a Maharashtra-based NGO empowering sex workers, added.

The loss of livelihood is also affecting the lives of the sex workers' families, especially their children, after schools started online classes.

Most of these women can barely afford electricity in their homes They can't afford internet connectivity or the smartphones needed to attend classes," Bharati Dey, mentor at the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, told PTI.

With the lockdown being lifted in phases across the country, professionals in most sectors have gradually started returning to work with proper social distancing measures in place. However, the situation remains unchanged for sex workers.

According to Kusum, president of the All India Network of Sex Workers (AINSW), a majority of the client base of sex workers comprises migrant labourers.

We have made women in brothels across the country aware of the need for sanitisation, and servicing the clients with minimum physical contact, but there are barely any clients coming. Most of them left during the migrant exodus, and those who stayed back are too afraid of contracting the virus.

Besides, with unsteady incomes at the moment, the labourers cannot really afford to spend money on sex workers, Kusum said.

Going online has more problems than advantages, said Kiran Deshmukh, who has been working out of a brothel in Sangli, Maharashtra, for 27 years.

Initially, we thought like everything else, we too can go online. but we realised that it carried the risk of being recorded and our videos could be leaked on the internet. So we tried to complete the job over text chats. But the problem with doing the work online or through phone is that clients often refuse to pay, added Deshmukh, who is also president of the National Network of Sex Workers.

The shame associated with the profession only adds to the burden for those who kept their work a secret.

A 34-year-old working in Warangal, for instance, kept the fact that she was a sex worker hidden from her family for eight years. But now questions are being raised.

My family knew I was working at some company But because I haven't been working since the lockdown got over and they see other people returning to work, the question have started. I am not sure how long I can keep up with this, she said.

Her family of five mother, brother, two children and herself (her husband died a few years back) -- survives on a Rs 5,000 from her brother's handicap and her widow pension. Before the pandemic, she would make Rs 15,000 a month.

Maybe the government can provide skill development programmes for us so we can have an alternative livelihood. I have lost complete hope of being able to return to work anytime soon, she said.

While relief is essential, it is the recovery of their profession that worries the community the most.

Unlike other professions where social distancing and sanitisation is enough to reopen offices, it will be more than just a while before sex workers can return to work.

The government has been saying that we need to learn to live with COVID-19, but how? I am clueless about when we will be able to return to work. And, honestly, even I am scared. What if I catch the infection and then spread it to my family? said Lalita.

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