Shivam Singh Tomar, II year of B.B.A.,LL.B. from University of Petroleum and Energy Studies
Covid-19 has impacted every section of the society whether rich or poor but the mostly the marginalized sections of the society get affected the most, we have seen the case of the migrant worker in INDIA. how they are facing the brunt of coronavirus. Sex workers must not be forgotten in the covid-19 response.
According to the NATIONAL AIDS CONTROL ORGANISATION (NACO), INDIA has close to 6,37,500 sex workers, and over 5 lakh customers visit the red light areas daily, the scientists noted in a release.[i]
Due to COVID-19, they are facing an enormous number of problems such as :
SOCIAL DISTANCING IS IMPOSSIBLE: why I am talking about social distancing because these areas are highly congested even a normal person can face problem during the walk so these areas are in a pathetic situation in this pandemic situation, in cities like DELHI, KOLKATA and MUMBAI, worst affected areas due to COVID19, brothels are located in jam-packed red light areas where social distancing is impossible. DELHI’s GB road has more than 3,000 sex workers housed in 80 small brothels, in KOLKATA’s SONAGACHI, which referred to as ASIA’s largest red-light area, has between 8,000-10,000 sex workers.[ii]
Hygiene is a challenge, with limited access to running water and as many as 50 people sharing one bathroom, as the situation of slum area we have seen. brothels rarely have kitchens and women buy food from vendors. for these women, the lockdown has meant the loss of their entire ecosystem – rickshaw drivers, corner stores and street carts.[iii]
They have no business no money, one of the recent cases of a girl named Shalini from UTTAR PRADESH, she ran away from her abusive home at the age of 18 and she wanted to be an actress but got into prostitution to survive in the city. She said ‘’after getting into this business (sex trade) at least I was not struggling for food, I was not on streets. But ever since the coronavirus outbreak and the lockdown, I have zero customers and money is drying up’’.[iv]
The women also risk getting trapped in an endless debt cycle with private money lenders. TEJASWI SEVEKARI OF SAHELI SANGHA, an NGO working with sex workers in PUNE, she said that ‘’interest rates run as high as 12-25% per month, which may take years to repay’’. Most sex workers lack bank accounts and invest savings in small gold ornaments to pawn during tough times.
They have no food, one of the stories of a girl named Sharmila who grew up as an orphan on the street of Kanpur became a sex worker in DELHI five years ago to make ends meet. She says ‘’I have no food, no medicines and no customers. It is impossible to survive any longer in DELHI with the saving I have ‘’.
NO ACCEPTANCE IN THE SOCIETY, another sex worker RAJNI said that she and her four-year-old son have not eaten properly in the last two months. ‘’when my son fainted out of weakness two weeks back I decided to move back.
UNABLE TO REACH HOME, after the lockdown was imposed, many women left for their villages but some could not manage to leave. One woman from TAMIL NADU said that she wanted to go back to her home. With no buses or trains available, walking remains her only option. It would take me a year to reach home if I walked she said. Over 60% of sex workers return to their home from DELHI.[v]
Sex workers are 13 times more at risk of HIV compared with the general population, due to an increased likelihood of being economically vulnerable, unable to negotiate consistent condom use, and experiencing violence, criminalization and marginalization.
Though, there is scarce reliable evidence of the risk of infection of COVID19 among people living with HIV, although the risk could be greater among those who are immunocompromised and not on HIV treatment.
MENTAL PROBLEM, as the uncertainty and fear of the pandemic, grow, social workers anticipate a sharp spike in depression, anxiety, and perhaps suicide. Existing mental health problem is likely to be exacerbated by anxiety over income, food and housing alongside concern about infection from continuing to work in the absence of social protection.
NO SUPPORT FROM GOVERNMENT- with no government support, the onus to help the marginalized has fallen on the voluntary sector that includes a different kind of NGO AND CIVIL SOCIETY WHO WORK FOR THEM. Women working in sex industries are now dependent on charities for their basic needs, including food and access to medication during the lockdown, especially antiretroviral (ART) therapy medication for treating HIV/AIDS.[vi]
INTERNATIONAL SITUATION, the same situation prevails in the whole world related to sex workers. Some countries increased the policing in the red light area so that they could not operate and several countries have already led to home raids, compulsory COVID 19 testing and the arrest and threatened deportation of migrant sex workers.[vii]
In the US many of these schemes required proof that employment has been lost or reduced as a result of COVID 19. Because sex workers are criminalized, it’s not possible to provide the necessary paperwork and proof of unemployment. Thus sex workers can’t get utility payment from the government. [viii]
In NETHERLANDS the red light district is one of the main tourist attraction in AMSTERDAM because prostitution is legal and brothel is also regulated, here also the government is not allowed to resume the brothel until September.
The founder of new light URMI BASU, this is an NGO IN KOLKATA, he works for children of sex workers, he worries about the long-term situation. He said that ‘’ even when the lockdown lifts if they start taking client, there is no way of knowing who’s carrying the virus. Unlike HIV/AIDS, a condom can’t protect them. How does one negotiate safety in this situation? He also includes one point that ‘’sex workers don’t feature anywhere as a marginalized group. The government does not want to accept that there’s prostitution in the country. It’s the elephant in the room.[ix]
Government of INDIA is unlikely to open brothels and sex work so early because researchers including those from yale school of medicine in the US, said closing down these places of sex work may reduce projected COVID-19 death toll increase in INDIA by 63 per cent post the easing of lockdown measure. According to a report, India can avoid 72% of projected COVID cases by closing red light areas.
The report said that the closing of lockdown can reduce the number of cases by 72 per cent in a period of 45 days and delay the peak of COVID-19 cases by 17 days. If the red light areas are kept closed, they said there can be a delay in the peak of COVID-19 cases by up to 12 days in Mumbai, 17 days in MUMBAI, 17 days in NEW DELHI, and 29 days in PUNE. According to the scientists, the measure may also reduce COVID-19 cases by a fifth in Mumbai, by 27 per cent in PUNE and 31 per cent in NEW DELHI.
JEFFEREY TOWNSEND(professor: Biostatistics at the yale school of medicine) he said that JAPAN did not close down red-light areas in time and saw an explosion in cases because of a red light area which left local hospital ‘’overwhelmed’’.[x]
Though it is the need of the hour to not open brothels there is a critical need for governments and health and social care providers to work with affected communities and front-line service providers to co-produce effective interventions. It may be the right time for the government to come up with alternative livelihood options for sex workers.