I know everyone is suffering in this lockdown in their own unique ways—from mental health struggles to financial losses, and for some, just survival. But the good news is that, for the first time, we are talking about issues that have so far been hushed up in society. For the first time, we are talking openly and widely about mental health. We are talking about the economic value of household work women do.
So, I thought this was a good time for me to bring up another issue that we rarely talk about—the sex workers.
I am Sandhya Nair. I am a sex worker’s daughter. This letter is from all the people who are invisible in such a huge society full of visible problems.
Sex workers are invisible daily wage earners. They earn for their rent, food and other basic needs through their customers on an hourly basis. But since the lockdown, they have not been able to earn anything. I know all daily wage earners, like auto drivers and construction workers, are suffering because of a loss of income. However, there are some social welfare schemes to support them, like subsidised rations under the Public Distribution System (PDS) and NGOs serving them food. But sex workers are rarely covered under any of these social welfare schemes because they are undocumented.
An estimated 25,000 sex workers are living in Kamathipura, many with families and children. Bout 10-12 people live on bunks in a single room in a chawl. Over 50 people use the same public bathroom, which often doesn’t have water. Social distancing and maintaining hygiene is an impossibility for them, as it is for millions living in slums in India. Many of them are HIV+ or have other illnesses, but it’s impossible for them to get access to healthcare at the moment because government hospitals are, understandably, directing all their resources to Corona-infected patients. And sex workers certainly cannot afford private healthcare.
I currently live at and am supported by an NGO called Kranti. Kranti empowers girls from Mumbai’s Red Light Areas to become social problem solvers. Through the lockdown, girls like me living at Kranti and the staff have distributed groceries for a month to more than 200 families, and we have been cooking and serving freshly prepared meals to over 100 people every day.
However, this is just a scratch on the surface. A community like Kamthipura is much bigger than that. Some people had tears of joy after getting rations, but most went with disappointment because we did not have enough for everyone. I cried when I got home from food distributions because this is my community. I had had to turn away friends I grew up with and women who had fed me so many meals in their homes.
The good news is that now, more than ever before, when those of us who are lucky, sit down to have our meals, we think of the migrant workers, who tried to walk home to their villages hundreds of kilometres away. We think of them gathered in tens of thousands at the Anand Vihar Bus Terminal. We think of them because photos of these disasters have been plastered on newspapers, and videos of it on our TV screens. We couldn’t avoid seeing them. But we have not seen any photos or interviews of sex workers and their plight during this pandemic.
All of us have seen construction workers, homeless people, beggars and even Safai Karmacharis as we set out on the street in the morning. And now, so many of us are working to make sure they have food during these times. However, most of us have never seen a sex worker; we have never talked to them or heard their story. Sex workers won’t even cross anyone’s mind, because they are invisible in our large society of visible problems of poor healthcare systems and food supply chains.
But, since so many invisible issues, like wealth inequality, are being talked about now more than ever before, so many invisible people, like migrant workers, are being seen now; I thought this was the best time for me to bring my invisible community forward—sex workers, so we see them, recognise their existence, their struggles, and can together, help them survive these difficult times.