By Anil Dhir

Bhubaneswar: The overnment’s decision to impose the strict lockdown to curb the spread of the Corona virus triggered a mass exodus of migrant workers from cities; most of the economic activity came to a standstill. But for thousands of sex workers living in cities across India, there is nowhere to go. The loss of income overnight has plunged one of the most vulnerable and marginalised groups into the depths of anxiety and deprivation. They live on the brink of invisibility; the lockdown has meant a complete loss of income and a struggle for daily survival.

Sex workers don’t feature anywhere as a marginalised group. The government doesn’t want to accept that there’s prostitution in the country. It’s the elephant in the room. The 20 lac crore package announced by the government has nothing for the benefit of sex workers. In April this year, the Global Network of Sex Work Projects and UNAIDS released a report on the hardship and discrimination faced by sex workers during the Corona pandemic worldwide and urged countries to ensure that their human rights be respected and fulfilled. The statement read: “Whenever and wherever possible, sex workers are responsibly self-isolating in response to governments’ calls. However, when they are excluded from COVID-19 social protection responses, sex workers are faced with putting their safety, their health and their lives at increased risk just to survive…”

While the official figures of the number of sex workers in India is below a million, activists who are working in the field  estimate that the figure  could be anywhere between 1.25 million and 3 million. In the urban red-light areas, multiple women live together in squalor, in tiny dilapidated rooms which stand cheek by jowl on narrow streets, where social distancing is impossible to follow. The financial situation is made worse because sex workers often have no savings. Now, with no cash coming in, they fear not being able to pay rent and may end up without a place to live. The migrants went home; these poor women have nowhere to go. Even the homeless and beggars   are being put in shelters, but nobody even acknowledges the existence and plight of sex workers.

On March 26, the government had announced an allocation of Rs. 1.70 lakh crore under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana to help the poor “fight the battle against Corona Virus”. All women account-holders under the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (PMJDY) would receive cash transfers of Rs. 500 per month for next three months. Sadly, very few of the sex workers have   Jan Dhan accounts; in fact, most of them have no documents at all.

The core clientele has traditionally been migrant workers and men who are away from their families. Given that this group is also grappling with the horrific economic effect of the lockdown, sex workers – themselves daily wage earners – are staring at months without business. Food provision is the least of their worries; many sex workers have diseases, especially high prevalence of HIV-positive and tuberculosis cases. Access to proper healthcare has become increasingly difficult due to the corona virus scare.

The usually busy street of Malisahi in Bhubaneswar is now mostly empty, with only a few women waiting outside their homes. This red-light area of the State capital has nearly 250 sex workers. A few have left for their villages; around 150 have nowhere to go. Business has been zero since the lockdown. Most of them have small children and are victims of human trafficking. The few we met all came from remote districts, some from West Bengal and quite a few were Bangladeshis. Many of them have families to support in their villages, childcare has become a huge problem as day and night care shelters have shut down and children spend their entire day in the cramped brothels.

I had come to know about their sad plight from the report of a young journalist Rana Laxmidhar. The brothel keeper, an old matron told me “My priority is to keep them safe. We make do with whatever food we get. Many of the girls and children go hungry. There is no help from the government; a few NGO’s lend support. Even after the lockdown is over, there will be no business. The clients will worry about whom the sex workers have come in contact with. There is not future for us”.  She also complained that even basic sanitization of the place was not done by the authorities. They only cover the main road and don’t enter our places, she said.  Only Gram Utthan, a NGO is providing them  relief.

“Even during the lockdown, a few of them desperately search for customers to make ends meet. We have shut down the entire area, no movement is allowed”, a local police official said on the condition of anonymity. Even he agreed that their condition is pitiable. Ms. Namrata Chadda, social worker and women’s rights activist says, “It is sad that nobody is talking about them. They work, they are human beings too. But in society, neither do they have a name nor is there any concern about them among the people.” Ms. Bharati Girdhar from the Punjabi Arya Sanatan Biradari has arranged fifty ration packs for distribution among the sex workers. She has assured that more assistance will be given.   

When will sex workers be seen as human beings whose basic needs deserve to be met? This is an ideal time for the government to intervene and tackle trafficking and forced prostitution. The government should think of an exit strategy that includes transitional housing, bank loans and alternate employment. The government must announce an economic package for sex workers so that they can survive through the crisis. COVID-19 presents a natural opportunity to help sex workers exit their trade and find out alternative livelihoods. The government should take on board  NGO’s, civil society organizations and the sex workers and make effective policies for rehabilitation of this miserable lot.

If the red light areas reopen, the economic cost of hospitalizations and ICU admissions for just sex workers will be very high. The cost of reintegrating sex workers is much less than the economic cost of reopening red light areas. The red light areas should be closed indefinitely to protect Indians from COVID-19.