“Let’s go this way,” said Nasima, a sex worker in her mid-thirties, from the Kalahandi colony, Damanjodi, Koraput district, when we walked down the narrow road, which was flanked by garbage on both sides, We entered into a hut with a mud wall and thatched roof. She stays with her three-year-old daughter and old mother in that rented single-room mud house. The mud house also serves as a cosy kitchen on one side, besides hosting clients as a private space for sexual services.
When Nasima’s clients visit her in her house, her mother takes care of her three-year-old daughter. Sometimes, when her mother goes out to the relatives’ house for a few days, she sends her daughter to her neighbour who is also a sex worker like Nasima. Nasima is not a full-time sex worker; she works as a daily wage labourer in the area.
While talking about the availability of food during a pandemic such as Covid-19, Nasima told that she depends only on hot cooked meal provided by the municipality of Damanjodi, that too only once a day. She and her mother brought three hot-cooked meals and for dinner, they beg in the neighbourhood areas.
She shared how she spent all of her saving during the 1st phase of the lockdown declared by the Modi Government, which started on March 24th 2020. She never thought that it would extend up till now. “The lockdown meant a complete loss of income, and me and my kid, along with my old mother, are struggling for daily survival”, she said.
“I am left with no other options but to go out in search for clients and some of the old clients are still reaching out but in very few numbers. I don’t have the option to say no to clients as all the construction and other activities were stopped because of the lockdown. I want to take all the precautions but some of the clients denied it. I can’t force them in fear that they may opt for the other sex workers or they might not pay”, she adds.
“I don’t have the money to buy sanitizers and hand wash or soap for use. I got three masks that were distributed by Damanjodi Municipality. So I cannot even ask the customer for hand wash when they come to my room. Now the big problem is that my house owner is asking for rent. If I don’t pay, ten he will force me to vacate the home. Then where will I go with my three-year-old daughter and old mother? How we will survive?”
With Nasima’s experiences, we realise how difficult it was for everyone during the pandemic. It has a severe impact on key populations like sex workers. Most of them are experiencing economic hardship and anxiety about their health and safety.
Sex workers are often from groups such as undocumented migrants, people of lower caste and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBTQ) communities, those who are already economically and socially marginalized. Most of them have been pushed out of their families due to homophobia and sex work maybe the only option remaining for them.
The twenty lakh crore rupees package announced by the Union government had nothing for the benefit of sex workers. The Center, on March 26, announced the allocation of Rs. 1.70 lakh crore under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana to help the poor those ‘fight the battle against coronavirus’ but sex workers are not recognized as beneficiaries under the scheme.
All women account holders under the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (PMJDY) were to receive cash transfers of Rs.500 per month for the next three months. But the sex workers are not included in it. No sex workers, in the Koraput district, have Jan Dhan accounts and most have no documents because their very existence is denied by the government.
Right to Food, as a fundamental right, is statutorily imbibed in the National Food Security Act, 2003, (Right to Food Act). The Act aims to provide subsidized food grains to approximately two-thirds of India’s population. Sex workers, however, are not included as beneficiaries. Also, the sex workers are not counted by the government as the district administration does not have data and record on the sex workers in the district.
Sex workers are now facing immense difficulties for months together without any business. Considering this, migrant workers are also struggling to cope with little to no income. They now risk being homeless due to their inability to pay rent because of no income. While the homeless and beggars were being put in shelters, people rarely acknowledge the existence and plight of sex workers.
The provision of food, however, is the least of the worries that sex workers face; several suffer from diseases, especially high prevalence of hypertension, stress and anxiety issues. They need mental health support and psycho-social counselling to combat the stress and anxiety they are currently experiencing.
June 2 is marked as International Sex Worker’s Day. The day which is also known as the International Whore’s Day is a celebratory day that remembers the discrimination of prostitutes and their often-exploitative living and condition of working. The starting points of the International Sex Workers Day as a memorial was in June 1975 in which more than 100 prostitutes occupied the Church Saint-Nizier in Lyon in order to get attention to their situation. This remembrance day is celebrated annually since 1976 on the 2nd of June.
So it is an appropriate time, during this global pandemic, for NGOs, INGOs, youth, government functionaries and civil society to advocate to count the sex workers among the most vulnerable sections of the population and strategies their upliftment by including them into public policies.
*Names have been changed to preserve the identity of the person