Sex work in the time of Covid-19

Jayashree’s road to change began when her father, a fruit-seller, died in 2011 leaving her mother alone to provide for three children. Someone put her in touch with Kranti, an NGO dedicated to empowering the daughters of sex workers to become agents of social change. A year later she moved into the organisation’s residential shelter that houses 25 girls.

The transition wasn’t easy. Her formal schooling had, at best, been spotty. Conditions at home — often a 12 feet by 12 feet room that sleeps six — aren’t conducive to learning. Most children have had no previous formal learning and need to catch up before they can be integrated in classes. And when they do, they must deal with the stigma, and abuse, that follows.

Before she joined Kranti, Jayashree said she used to hide her mother’s identity and what she did for a living. Now, she said, “I’m so proud of her and what she did for us. She is my source of strength. Her work is strength.”

She is proud also of her community. “People see only a red light area. For me, this is my family and I am lucky to have the love of so many mothers,” she said. Back, before she had moved to the Kranti shelter and was living at Kamathipura, a customer had glanced at her sideways and had to face the collective wrath of a dozen moms. “She is our daughter,” they yelled at him. “Don’t you ever look at her again.”

In India, sex work is legal. But soliciting, running a brothel and living off the earnings of sex work is not. This ambiguity denies many their rights such as ration cards and aadhar cards (essential to receive many government entitlements) and leaves scope for routine police harassment.

There are 6,57,800 sex workers in India, found a 2016 UNAIDS study. Other estimates put the number at three million. The nationwide lockdown announced on March 24 and social distancing measures still in place have pushed them to the edge. 

“Sex workers are left unprotected, increasingly vulnerable and unable to provide for themselves and their families,” stated an April 8 press release issued jointly by the Global Network of Sex Work Projects and UNAIDS. 

Media attention during the migrant worker reverse migration following the lockdown resulted in a great deal of public concern but, write Priyanka Tripathi and Chhandita Das in the Economic and Political Weekly, “there is rarely any concern shown over the troubles of sex workers…although their condition is grimmer than other wage earners.”

Trina Talukdar, one of Kranti’s co-founders admitted: “Covid has posed unprecedented challenges to us.” Children who were in residential schools are back home. Online classes aren’t possible because internet access is patchy. And NGOs have had their hands full with basic relief work: Kranti provided 250 cooked meals a day as well as monthly groceries and toiletries to 3,000 families during the lockdown.

Even in the early days, funds were hard to come by. Now “donor fatigue has set in” said Talukdar. And sex workers are being forced to take high interest loans just to survive.

Jayashree knows that times are hard in the community. “Sex workers are daily wage workers. But no government agency is focusing relief work for them.” Doctors have shifted out and those with long-term conditions like HIV find that their treatments have stopped. “Forget about medicine, for many there is no money to eat.”

But she also knows that with no outside help forthcoming, it’s up to the community to help itself. The girls have helped with cooking; some are teaching zumba and meditation online for a small fee.

Plans of flying off to Washington, D.C. now seem like a distant dream but that doesn’t mean that all dreams are dead. “One day I will open a school for the children of sex workers,” said Jayashree. For now, the only question is how to survive.

A shorter version of this article was published in the Hindustan Times on August 7

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