Ever since the pandemic attacked, many of us lost our jobs and faced severe money crises — that comes along with mental health issues and a physical burden.
People are struggling; they are opting for every possible alternate option to sustain themselves and their family — but think about the communities who have been neglected by our society much before the pandemic hit us — sex workers!
They are one of the most affected, vulnerable and neglected sections of our society — constantly struggling amid the pandemic.
“All physical contact workers are going to suffer because of COVID-19 here. Unfortunately, the government is not responding the way it should. Most sex workers’ children live in hostels. Now, the kids have come back to their mothers. Now, they not only have to feed themselves but their kids too – this is a nightmare for them,” said Meena Seshu, founder of Sangram, a non-profit.
Tales of sufferings
“If the customer wears a mask, it is fine. If he does not wear a mask, he will not be entertained. If something happens to me, who will look after my children?” said Rajni*, a 30YO Mumbai-based sex worker. “The customer has to wash his hands; there will be no mouth-to-mouth. We won’t even take our clothes off – just do the kaam (job) and leave!” she added.
“We will tell the customer not to touch our faces. Both of us have to wear masks. They also know of COVID-19; they understand,” 31YO Mumtaz Ansari*, another sex worker, added.
“It is the worst time for my family and me. There are a lot of things like paying the house rent, electricity bill, ration for which we need money. But, since there is not a single customer coming now, we have zero income, and we are unable to pay for these necessities on time. For now, I am working with Saheli NGO from which I am able to at least pay the house rent, and the NGO provides us with all kinds of ration, But I also get anxiety issues because I have not met my kids, who are in a hostel, since last two years,” a 33YO sex worker from Delhi said.
“Initially, we used to offer services online, but we realised that it carried the risk of being recorded and our videos could be leaked on the Internet. So, we started offering services over text chats. But the drawback of performing online or over the phone is that customers often refuse to pay,” another 29YO sex worker from Bengaluru, Mansi*, added.
Business will not stop
“The business will not stop. If one area is sealed, it will move to another,” said Sudhir Patil, treasurer of the National Network of Sex Workers (NNSW).
“Customers have to wear a condom anyway. Henceforth, they have to wash their hands and wear a mask. We will also be wearing masks. We have told members to only have peno-anal sex to reduce direct contact between the two,” he added. “Some researchers are claiming COVID-19 cases will increase due to sex work. We want to ask them, does COVID-19 spread only because of sex work? We were targeted when HIV came as well. Instead of targeting people of a particular community, target the virus.”
Sex work amid the pandemic
“Sex work has resumed on a small scale. All sex workers and their clients are wearing masks; some are even making their clients take a bath before the activity,” said Amit Kumar, national coordinator, All India Network of Sex Workers (AINSW). “Some have kept thermometers to check the client’s body temperature and look for basic symptoms of COVID-19. I don’t see sex workers trying to leave the profession. In Mumbai, some sex workers had started selling vegetables outside some restaurants in Kamathipura, but the police drove them away. They might take up something like this temporarily.”
“The women have shifted to WhatsApp-based or internet-based solicitation where pictures are being shared with clients. They are then supplied in massage parlors and small hotels (lodges) in an appointment-based pattern across cities. The traffickers and people running this business are enjoying anonymity and are hiding from the scanners of law enforcement agencies,” Ravi Kant, President of the Delhi-based NGO Shakti Vahini and an advocate with Supreme Court, said.
“These women are victims of human trafficking. They are often brought from countries such as Nepal and Bangladesh. They are now being moved out of the red light area and taken to other places such as East Delhi, Majnu Ka Tila by owners of human trafficking business,” he added. “The sex work has diversified across the city as, during COVID-19 times, hundreds of massage parlours and spa services have been opened. Even in NCR cities such as Faridabad, Gurgaon or Karnal, the only business working is massage parlours as they are able to pay the rent. Girls are being forced into this industry.”
“Brothel-based sex workers are easier to find, target and give welfare, but how will you find who is a sex worker on the street because she does not reveal her identity, and they are also regular women staying at home in their families,” said Anant Kamath, a faculty with the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS). “During these times, many sex workers have been even asked by other states to move to other professions to be saved. But that is not what they need, and they need financial aid.”
“We are also running a centre, Pahal, which prepares the children of sex workers to get entrance to normal schools. About 60 children are enrolled with the centre. We are also taking care of the elderly sex workers above 40 by social orientation and train them so that they can choose another profession. Their regular health needs are also taken care of on a regular basis during COVID-19,” said Amitabh Srivastava, governing body member of Prayas.
“If any woman is found positive or is unwell, we have made our own community arrangements for them. We are in touch with doctors too. We send them to a nearby hospital with referral if their situation aggravates,” an official from Durbar said.
Acceptance is the key
Mumbai-based activist Harish Iyer feels soliciting should be legalised, “It is important to legalise soliciting to ensure sex workers also get the protection of the law. If soliciting is made legal, their right to dignity, livelihood, privacy will be ensured. Not everyone in sex work is forced into it. Also, even if they are forced into it, if they want to continue it, it is up to them. It is like a labourer using his body to earn a living.”
“There is no room for respect or acceptance towards our profession as sex workers. When I approach schools with sufficient income and all the required documents, my 5-year-old child still is denied admission. Although there is no legal requirement to provide the father’s name or documents, one school used it as an excuse to deny my child’s right to education. And when a pregnant sex worker needs to have her delivery, the hospital gives her the lowest priority, even in an emergency,” one of the sex workers shares.
Sad! Knowing the fact that we live in a country where one rape case happens every 15 minutes, marital rape is legal, sex work as a profession is considered a sin!!
What these people need is guidance, aid and welfare — and the government strongly needs to start acknowledging their existence in society.