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Did Covid Relief Reach India’s Most Neglected Community, The Sex Workers?

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This post is a part of YKA’s dedicated coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak and aims to present factual, reliable information. Read more.

COVID-19 pandemic is fiercely affecting all human beings, globally. Even India is badly affected by the ongoing pandemic; therefore, the Central Government is clueless about how to tackle this situation. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced a 20 lakh crore package to revive the economy and provide relief to the common people. But some political parties, economists and intellectuals had a different opinion regarding this package because this was not going to help the disadvantaged directly.

Prostitution In India

There is one section in our society which has never received its due recognition or respect, and that’s perhaps the reason why the government never announced any relief package for them. This sector is one of the most vulnerable in all parameters, and they also need support from the state to survive this vicious pandemic.

It is extremely difficult to ascertain the approximate number of women forced into prostitution. As per the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, around 6.6 lakh women are engaged in this profession in India (2016).  There are also some secondary data which states that around 10 lakh or more sex workers are there currently. Women who are engaged in prostitution are the most vulnerable communities because they are socially isolated, and people treat them as if they are impure.


Representational image.

To understand their economic condition, one must be aware that they come from a poor background, and this is the reason they don’t have any agency as middlemen control this trade completely. And these young girls are forced to do this work because the middlemen have a network to bring these girls through human trafficking. Although in India, we have the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956 to combat trafficking and sexual exploitation for commercial purpose. But the effectivity of this act is questionable. In India, prostitution is legal but pimping, running a brothel, etc., is illegal.

Caste-based Prostitution

First time I interacted with women who were engaged in prostitution work was during my internship in the year 2016-17 at Mandsaur District of Madhya Pradesh. At this time, I was studying at the Tata Institute of Social Science, Mumbai. It was one of the most heartbreaking and challenging projects of my life because I was not sure how I could contribute something to impact their life even a little bit through my proposal writing. But somehow, I managed and completed my proposal and submitted it to the organization I was placed in for my internship. Trust me, on the first meeting, asking questions to any prostitute is a very difficult task because you are in a dilemma; you don’t know where to start.

Could anyone believe that one’s identity or caste could force them into prostitution? I was shocked when I heard about the Bachhada community in MP. The girls here are engaged in sex work because they were born in this community, and this is their main source of livelihood for generations.

There are many rules which were created by representatives of this community, and the most stringent rule is that the first girl child of the family has to indulge in prostitution work and look after the family. This rule is very rigid, and the girls’ age plays a vital role here because, after a certain age, a woman will not get customers.

This is a vicious cycle, and it’s happening from generation to generation in this community. One family can earn a larger amount during the girl’s puberty as many customers wait and pay a handsome amount. The problem with this is that after they turn 30 or 35, they witness a sharp decline in their income. However, on the other side, those girls who turn 12, start earning good money. Eventually, when they understand the nature of the work, it’s too late to quit. Therefore, they have to continue this work within Bachhada community.

For centuries, India’s social structure dominated by Upper castes has oppressed communities like this. They face discrimination and humiliation from other caste people. The highest number of school dropouts are students from this community because they are treated badly and have to face discrimination. This Bachhada community is settled in Neemach, Mandsaur, Ratlam district of Madhya Pradesh.

There are some other communities who are also compelled to do prostitution work because their communities’ people are engaged in this profession from generation to generation. It all started due to the caste system. Bedia, Devdasi, Sansi and many more communities are forced into prostitution work because of their caste.

COVID-19 Pandemic And Prostitution

As I was going through some secondary reports about how prostitution will suffer during this pandemic, I found that most truck drivers, migrant labourers and others are the main customers of this trade. COVID-19 is a communicable disease, and it can spread from one person to another rapidly. This disease has created panic among people and forced them to maintain social distancing from each other.

Due to this social distancing, these women are not getting customers to earn their livelihoods. They don’t have any kind of social welfare net because generally, they don’t have the proper documents to link themselves with government schemes. Some NGOs are coming out to support these women, but they too, have limited resources. As per the World Health Organization (WHO), now human beings have to live with COVID-19; it’s a hard fact for the prostitution industry.

Therefore, it is a state’s responsibility to take care of these people, and this is the right time to provide them with alternative livelihoods. It is also true that those who are engaged in this profession will not leave this easily because our system has always exploited them. The government should frame some projects or policies specific for women of this sector so that in future, their coming generation will come out of this heinous job.

Government has to come up with some concrete policies, keeping in mind that this community will take a longer time, maybe a few generations to leave this profession if they get the support and respect from the government and society. But for now, the government must provide some relief packages immediately for their survival.

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