Commercial sex workers have largely been left out of welfare measures for the vulnerable sections of the society during the pandemic, NGOs working in Goa, Maharashtra, Delhi, and West Bengal have found.
The finding is based on consultations NGOs Diksha (Kolkata), SPID Society (New Delhi), Anay Rahit Zindagi (ARZ) in Goa, and Prayas (Mumbai) have conducted. The NGOs found commercial sex workers faced a complete loss of livelihood because of the pandemic and lockdown. The stigma they face also prevented them from approaching the government or well-meaning people for help, they added.
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The Supreme Court last year directed the supply of dry rations to sex workers without insistence on identity documents amid the pandemic.
Arun Pandey, who runs ARZ and coordinated the consultation in Goa, said most of the sex workers have not benefited from the Supreme Court’s direction. He said many have taken up alternative livelihoods or are jobless and without financial support. “Most of them being bread earners for their families have to earn for themselves and their families. Due to loss of employment/source of earning, the sex workers…and their families are facing hunger, sexual exploitation and are vulnerable to trafficking.”
The consultations were conducted with the sex workers in Goa and the top three sources of trafficking to the state–Delhi, Maharashtra, and West Bengal–to understand their situation during the pandemic and benefits they have received as per the Supreme Court direction and under government schemes.
A report based on the consultations said the loss of income was reported by all. “Those engaged in commercial sex lost customers due to the lockdown and the economic crises… Those who had moved away from commercial sex were reconstructing their lives on their own, with minimal or no external support. Family support was often absent. As a result, they had to fend for themselves, even with lack of education and vocational skills,” the report said.
A commercial sex worker told one of the NGOs that they did not even have soaps. “We did not have money and we had no clients to attend to. The ration was given but there are other expenses… We were given tea leaves, but no milk.”
The report said participants with family members reported that many of their immediate family members also lost jobs. “Participants who earned from commercial sex after the lockdown was lifted reported that their earning had drastically reduced, and they were still not able to meet their basic needs.”
Most participants said they found it difficult to pay rent. Some shifted out of their residences to live with friends in larger groups, others moved to families who resented their return without income. Many took loans to meet these expenses. “Medical needs had to be compromised upon, because the government hospitals were now Covid-care centres and thus could not attend to other patients – leaving participants to search for private health facilities which most could not afford, or because there was no money for medicines or travel to hospitals during the lockdown,” the report said.