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When Added Violence And Stigma During The Pandemic Endangered 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.

TW: Abuse, violence.

Indian society has been glorifying patriarchy for decades now. This has directed misogyny and violence against women under its over-hyped ‘Hindutva culture’. Our country’s culture has always regarded women as ‘second class citizens’ who are to be under the strict vigilance of men. Under such circumstances, it is not at all surprising that there are myriad cases of emotional, physical and sexual violence faced by women during the lockdown.

The lockdown has been a period when toxic Indian men were locked up with their families, some devoid of work, devoid of chances to boast of their ‘machismo’, devoid of their ‘manly’ life, and had resorted to unleashing their frustration through violence on their ‘better halves’. The country has recorded a record 10-year-high number of domestic violence complaints between March 25 to May 31. What makes this worse is the fact that only 14% of domestic violence cases are ever reported in this country.

A good fraction of the sex workers had to borrow large sums of money to make ends meet and this trapped them within many debts taken, mostly from the informal avenues.  Representational image.

The to-be ‘Vishwa Guru’ and a ‘Hindu’ country believes the women are placed in the highest regard of society. The country has been idolizing Sita, Drapaudi, Parvati, and other goddesses as embodiments of the ‘ideal woman’. The society has been glorifying these goddesses as women who had sacrificed their lives for their husbands, who lived by upholding his male ego and dignity, never hesitated to prove their ‘purity’ when doubted by their husbands, and most importantly as always seeking physical and emotional protection from the males of the house.

All this has led to the normalization of violence against women within the protected domestic space. This is the everyday situation of women part of our toxic patriarchal society.

Sex workers, whose identity has been reduced to a mere slang, and who are thrown away from the ‘civilized’ Indian society, have been facing even worse conditions during the pandemic.

As per a survey by Anti Human Trafficking Organization, around 89% of the sex workers at Sonagachi, Asia’s largest red-light area, have been pushed into the debt trap during this pandemic. Around 81% of them have taken loans from the informal sectors, including money lenders, brothel owners, pimps.  Around 73% want to shift out of their profession but are not able to do so because of the many loans.

The report further states that even though the lockdown has been lifted, the sex workers are finding it difficult to resume their sex work. This is a reflection of society’s ignorance and indifference, and of the elected Hindutva government.

I had a conversation with Kusum, the President of the All India Network of Sex Workers during the peak of lockdown. She threw light on the fact that the sex workers are at the receiving end of many difficulties during the lockdown. The lockdown had brought the sex trade to a complete halt, and hence, adversely affected the livelihood opportunities of the sex workers. The sex workers had to starve themselves as well as their families. There was an instance where an elderly sex worker from Maharashtra had to feed her infant grandchild black tea as she could not afford to buy milk.

Sex workers had tried to take up different professions, selling vegetables or other eatables in the streets of Delhi during the lockdown. However, our patriarchal society did not let them do so and rather, stigmatized them so much that people hardly bought from them, further pushing them into the darkness of financial crunch.

A good fraction of the sex workers had to borrow large sums of money to make ends meet and this trapped them within many debts taken, mostly from the informal avenues.

Many sex workers tend to come from the lower-most strata of society and many are victims of trafficking. Under such circumstances, it is difficult for many to be beneficiaries of government schemes. The government had made Adhaar cards and other relevant documents mandatory to avail many benefits during the lockdown, and so, many sex workers were not able to produce those documents. For instance, in Assam’s Silchar and Nagaland’s Dimapur, there are a huge fraction of sex workers who are from Bangladesh. Under such circumstances, it is unlikely that they will be able to produce documents to avail such basic rights.

The Government had initiated various schemes for the daily wage workers during the lockdown. But, as Kusum had shared, the sex workers could not avail those schemes as sex work is not considered to be a ‘valid’ option of work. Kusum said, “I had also asked a Judge of a Delhi Court that why the sex work cannot be considered as a valid profession. To which the Judge had replied that right now we cannot consider it. I wonder what is wrong in the profession. As per our right to self-determination, one has the right to choose her profession.”

According to Anti-Human Trafficking Organization, around 89% of sex workers at Sonagachi, Asia’s largest red-light area were pushed into debt during lockdown. Representational image. Photo: Getty Images

The system is a reflection of the society and hence it has been reflecting sheer patriarchy, Hindutva ideals, and classism. While various left parties had been vocal against the atrocities on women and other downtrodden sections of the society, the sex workers are facing the worst without any proper representation in the demands of the civil rights societies.

It is condemnable how the migrant workers had to walk back to their respective states amidst the lockdown. But I believe that they at least received some attention from the media and civil rights organizations. The plight of sex workers during the lockdown and the aftermath is, and won’t, be a topic of popular discussion or debate. This shows our sick mindset which demarcates the sex workers from society.

Society accepts the man who came out of a brothel and embraces him and his patriarchy, but, at the same time, refuse to accept the sex workers as its part.

Rarely were sex workers and their plight mentioned or addressed during the lockdown. The society, the government, and the civil rights organizations had almost turned a blind eye towards their fate, and this is problematic. India is a democratic and socialist republic where every citizen has equal rights, as per our Constitution.

A patriarchal, casteist, and hierarchal mindset may be normal for a kind of Indian culture which has been always looking down at the women. But, as per our Constitution, all women, including the sex workers are entailed equal rights.

Featured image for representation only.
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Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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