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10M Indian sex workers starving, at risk of infection as they are left out of coronavirus relief fund

Unable to take on clients amid the pandemic lockdown, sex workers have been left without a means of livelihood while their minimal savings have turned to nothing
UPDATED APR 30, 2020
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The nation-wide lockdowns and stringent social distancing measures have upended many lives and devastated economies worldwide. The poorer countries have taken a massive hit, and with people being laid off of their jobs, surviving during the pandemic has become a struggle. In a country like India for example, daily wage workers have been left without a safety net with no wages to sustain them. About half a million people are estimated to have left cities to walk home, prompting what is the country's "largest mass migration since independence", according to Oxfam India's chief executive, Amitabh Behar.

But a marginalized section of India's society whose jobs have been impeded due to the lockdown are among those suffering the most. India imposed its lockdown measure on March 24 until April 13 and then extended it further to May 3. Sex workers from all across the nation have lost their incomes overnight and are also victims of deprivation.

The Indian government introduced a $22.5B COVID 19-relief package for the poor. However, it conveniently excluded the sex workers. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that $6.66 ( ₹500) would be deposited to the bank accounts of 200M people every month. But that didn't include those working or trafficked into the sex industry, as many of these people lack government-approved documentation to access public funds and relief schemes.

Prostitutes line Falkland Road in Bombay, India (Getty Images)

"Sex workers don't feature anywhere as a marginalized group. The government doesn't want to accept that there’s prostitution in the country. It’s the elephant in the room," Urmi Basu, executive director of New Light Kolkata, a public charitable trust and NGO working with sex workers, told The Guardian.

The core clientele base of the sex industry mostly comprises daily wagers such as migrant workers, truck drivers and people who are away from home. Now, unable to take on clients amid the pandemic lockdown, sex workers are left without a means of livelihood, while their minimal savings have dwindled to nothing. In India, the sex industry and all related activities are illegal, and maintaining brothels or solicitation of customers are deemed criminal offenses. 

Global Network of Sex Work Projects and UNAIDS released a joint statement on April 8 that highlighted the difficulties and discrimination the sex workers are facing during this crisis. They urged countries to ascertain that sex workers' human rights will be respected and fulfilled. "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," the statement read.

“Even when the lockdown lifts, if they start taking clients, there is no way of knowing who’s carrying the virus. Unlike HIV/Aids, a condom can’t protect them. How does one negotiate safety in this situation?" Basu added. 

At least 10M women in India work as commercial prostitutes. These women usually earn ₹200 or ₹300 per client, and they use these earning to pay rent, buy food, medicines and clear their utility bills. Some even have children and other dependents who rely on them to pay for their education. In addition, they also have to pay commission to Madames or brothel owners and pimps. 

A street in Kamathipura, a red-light district in Mumbai, India (Getty Images)

Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata are three major Indian cities with densely populated red-light areas that entirely defy the social-distancing guideline. GB Road in India's capital city of Delhi reportedly has more than 3,000 sex workers living in 80 brothels. Sonagachi, Asia's largest red-light area based in Kolkata, has between 8000 to 10,000 sex workers. 

Another major challenge in brothels is cleanliness. With limited access to clean water and several people sharing a single bathroom, there is not much they can do about personal hygiene. Add to it the fact that the women living in brothels depend on street vendors for food, since they have no access to kitchens, their ecosystem has been turned upside down due to the pandemic. 

In this time, many non-profit organizations are stepping in to support sex workers, who have become increasingly dependent on them. However, there is only so much they can do. Social workers expect that with growing concerns about the pandemic, there will be an exponential rise in cases of depression, anxiety and possibly even suicide among sex workers. The voluntary organizations are providing them with basic needs, including food and access to medication during the lockdown — particularly antiretroviral therapy medications to treat HIV/AIDS. Social workers are reaching out to people living in the marginalized areas and in the process, risking exposure to the contagion.