Blind Spots of the Pandemic: Sex Work and COVID-19

Almost overnight, the COVID-19 pandemic erased the incomes and livelihoods of millions across the country. A particularly affected group is that of sex workers. Already marginalised and ostracised in society, sex workers have the additional fear of their occupation never recovering from the pandemic. Due to the vanishing of clients, after the lockdown was imposed on March 26, sex workers across India are left with no income, no security, and no guarantee of being a part of the ‘new normal’ that India is beginning to envision.

A recent modelling study by researchers at the Yale School of Medicine and Harvard Medical School says commercial sex work in red-light areas if allowed to resume, could lead to a rapid rise in infections and quickly overwhelm hospitals in India.

There are close to 637,500 sex workers in India as per the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO), and over 500,000 customers visit red-light areas. The Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) estimates there are 650,000 sex workers in the country. Both these estimates grossly underestimate the real numbers, which is difficult to estimate due to the lack of documentation.

As Trina Talukdar, co-founder of Kranti says, “Sex work is like the informal of the informal economy.” They have the double disadvantage of ostracisation on top of being underpaid and, most often, living in dismal conditions. Some are also victims of sex trafficking, making them all the more likely to be undocumented.

As a result of these systemic flaws, the lockdown left sex workers across India devoid of income for rent and food. As most earn on a day-to-day basis depending on the number of clients, the instability of their income left them with minimal savings, not enough to feed themselves and their children through the lockdown. Across Indian cities, migrant sex workers are joining the exodus back to their hometowns. In Delhi alone, 60% of sex workers have left the city, estimates the All India Network of Sex Workers (AINSW). Some were driven out by their landlords when they couldn’t pay rent, others struggled to afford food and medicines.

Disease plays another begrudging role in their difficulties. In cities like Delhi, Mumbai, and Kolkata, brothels are located in jam-packed red-light areas where social distancing is impossible. Delhi’s GB Road has more than 3,000 sex workers housed in 80 small brothels. Kolkata’s Sonagachi, which is referred to as Asia’s largest red-light area, has between 8,000 - 10,000 sex workers. With limited access to running water and as many as 20 people sharing one bathroom, hygiene is a challenge. Access to healthcare is especially tough. Many already suffer from diseases like HIV and tuberculosis but are unable to get the medical attention they need. Red-light areas have also been highly policed since the lockdown began in March.

The government’s large scale schemes overlooked the parameter of accessibility. The cash transfer and ration schemes, while already inadequate, pose a specific problem of inaccessibility when it comes to sex workers. Most of them do not have an Aadhar card or a ration card to access the benefits. UNAIDS in a press statement released in April said, “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”. They have also highlighted the reports of punitive actions against sex workers. Sensitisation, respect for their human rights as well as concentration on inclusivity in emergency government schemes is the only way forward.

In this light, we can understand why the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956 is not comprehensive enough to regulate the Indian sex industry. Arguably, it has led to the furthering of the physical and institutional isolation of sex workers. The Act criminalises brothels, which includes two or more women working together, as prostitutes. This implies that if women want to work as sex workers legally, they should work alone. Further, the compulsion that sex work should not be within a 200m radius of any public place again implies that to engage in prostitution legally, an isolated location should be chosen.

These weak attempts to curtail prostitution have clearly failed, which is patently evident from the fact that metropolitan cities like Mumbai and Kolkata boast red-light areas of Kamathipura and Sonagachi respectively, which rank as some of the largest red-light areas in Asia. The Act has only succeeded in making sex workers more vulnerable by forcing them to work in the darker, more invisible corners of the cities, silently suffering exploitation. They are often left without access to information and public facilities, including those that are essential to survive the pandemic.

While there are efforts on part of non-governmental organisations and civil society groups to provide support to sex workers and their families, neither do these efforts guarantee sustainability in the long run nor do they mitigate the fear of an unpredictable future. With no government support, the onus to help the marginalised has fallen on the voluntary sector. Women working in the sex industry are now dependent on charities for their basic needs, including food and access to medication during the lockdown, especially antiretroviral therapy medications for treating HIV/AIDS. These social workers must risk infection to continue fieldwork. While the virus itself does not make any distinction between groups, governance during the pandemic definitely does. Urmi Basu, founder of New Light in Kolkata, which works with children of sex workers says, “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”.

Uncertainty is a common problem everyone faces at different levels due to this virus, however, sex workers have the added stress of facing a dying industry. Even when the lockdown lifts, sex work poses a grave problem for safety, as COVID-19 cannot be prevented using protection, unlike other sexually-transmitted diseases.

Societal prejudice against sex workers has made it even easier for them to be rendered invisible. They are isolated in every way possible and receive close to no mainstream attention either from the media or the government. Women’s collectives such as the National Network of Sex Workers (NNSW) collective have been lobbying for targeted relief packages. Ruchira Gupta, the founder of Apne Aap Women Worldwide, said that right now is an ideal time for the government to intervene and tackle trafficking and forced prostitution. They have all come to this profession through an absence of choice. The government should think of an exit strategy that includes transitional housing, bank loans and alternative employment.

Though the pandemic has brought to light a barrage of flaws in our failing systems, it is important to remember that these flaws have always existed. The legislation regarding sex work and sex trafficking has always been inadequate. It is indispensable to understand the problems faced by sex workers from their own perspective and make them a part of the decision-making process instead of ignoring their voice and consent. There is a need for more inclusive legislation, made for sex workers and trafficked women, and not for upholding the ideals of what the government conceives as social morality.

A list of NGOs and Collectives actively conducting relief work for sex workers across India, if you wish to donate:

- Prerna, Mumbai http://preranaantitrafficking.org/

- New Light, Kolkata http://newlightindia.org/donate.php

- Apne Aap Women Worldwide, #OneMillionMeals programme https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/support-apne-aap-girls-during-covid-19-crisis/

- Apne Aap Women’s Collective (AAWC), Mumbai http://www.aawc.in/act/give.aspx


Ritisha Gupta

A Political Science student from Delhi University. Hoping to make a difference, one step at a time.

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