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Spare a thought for sex workers

a survey by the United Nations Programme on AIDS (UNAIDS) in 2016 indicates presence of 657,870 sex workers in India. From another source, we find that there are more than 1,100 redlight areas in India, falling within the range of plausible hotspots of the ongoing pandemic.

DILIP DATTA | New Delhi |

After a complete nationwide lockdown, which was necessary for breaking the chain of novel coronavirus, our country is in the unlocking phase now. But has the lockdown affected various sections of the society proportionately? Certainly not. While the comparatively rich and privileged have the resilience to absorb the financial uncertainty brought about by the pandemic, the poor and vulnerable have been driven by the distress of survival. The case in discussion in this article is of sex workers who constitute a vulnerable community and are left to live at the fringes of society. The status of sex workers was not the same in the past as it is today. In ancient time, they were the devadasis of temples commanding social respect. Indian history mentions the existence of such an esteemed institution of sex work. Of late, they have been gradually relegated to the margins under the colonial hegemony of moral politics. Our society avails of their services but casts them out publicly playing on the politics of shame.

Before we discuss the economic fallout and distress caused to sex workers, let me place a few important facts. Although literature on sex workers is substantial, primarily focussing on health intervention programmes, there is no authentic data on their numbers and their distribution in various states of India. However, a survey by the United Nations Programme on AIDS (UNAIDS) in 2016 indicates presence of 657,870 sex workers in India. From another source, we find that there are more than 1,100 redlight areas in India, falling within the range of plausible hotspots of the ongoing pandemic. These areas, mostly ghettoes are ignored from the socially insensitive narratives of the Covid-19 crisis and thus have been deprived of any income during the complete lockdown period.

A scholarly research work on sex workers indicates nearly half are home-based sex workers and a majority of them (56 per cent) are between 26 and 35, with a median age of 30. More than half are non-literate and two-thirds are married. Nearly 60 per cent of them live with a spouse or a female partner. One in every 10 sex workers lives alone. Just 3 per cent reside in rural areas. One in every four is exclusively involved in sex work. One in every five does not have a cell phone. A majority of them did not have savings in the previous year, and a third had taken loans. Forty-five per cent have financial autonomy and 89 per cent of them are not ashamed to be identified as sex workers. Most are members of community-based organisations. During the nationwide lockdown, about 20 per cent had left for their native places. The others were left without any work and had to rely on the police and NGOs even for their daily meals.

In this backdrop, the economic fallout of Covid-19 on sex workers can be addressed. Sex work in India is one of the unrecognised economic sectors where most of the work is informal and unprotected. Sex workers are either exploited victims or fallen women and are not legally categorised as workers. Although, in recent times, efforts have been made by NGOs and social workers to include sex workers in the labour markets and for bringing them within the ambit of financial inclusion, the ambiguous position in Indian laws and codes has exacerbated their precarious position both socially and economically during the pandemic. Commercialised sex was criminalised soon after India’s independence in 1956 under the Suppression of Immoral Traffic Act (SITA). Under pressure of constitutional challenges regarding the right to profession, this act was amended in 1986 as the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act (ITPA), and it partially decriminalised sex as a profession for adults, putting sex workers across India in a legally vague position. The activities needed for sex work like keeping a brothel, “soliciting in public places,” “living off the earnings of prostitutes,” “seduction of persons in custody,” etc, are all under criminal provisions.

The Union Cabinet recently approved the Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2018. It is also not clear and comprehensive about sex workers’ rights, since the bill is coupled with the ITPA 1986 with extensive emphasis on strategies of raids and rescue that hardly pay heed to consenting sex between adults resulting in “human rights violations”. Although the Supreme Court of India recommends entitlement rights of sex workers as per the norms of Article 21 of the Constitution, which urges states to provide willing sex workers a conducive situation to continue their profession, sex workers often face harassment and are abused by police, agents, clients and goons.

A decade ago, a Supreme Court panel recommended to the Central government and Election Commission to issue sex workers voter ID cards relaxing verification norms and appealed to states and local institutions to promote ration cards to them. Till date, sex workers are often denied the basic entitlements of ration cards and health cards. This lack of documentation provides grounds to exclude sex workers in broader forms of social and economic sectors and increases vulnerabilities amidst this pandemic. Sex workers’ profession is still away from the loop of standard labour-protection measures, and thereby, their work is the most informal among India’s informal economy where the ongoing crisis hit hard, leaving them with no income.

Nirmala Sitharaman, our Finance Minister, in response to the lockdown, announced relief packages for the benefit of workers in informal sectors. These include doubling of ration entitlements free of cost under the National Food Security Act, giving Rs. 500 per month directly to “Jan Dhan Yojana” bank accounts of female workers, disbursing a pension amount of Rs. 1,000 for the coming three months to widows, old persons, and persons with disabilities. The government has also announced free liquefied petroleum gas cylinders for three months to the beneficiaries of “Ujjwala Yojana.” However, it is not clear whether sex workers would be eligible for this relief. Moreover, Aadhaar number has been made mandatory for getting these benefits. Most sex workers do not have an Aadhaar card. They work mostly with cash and do not feel any urge to open a bank account.

Their clientele is also passing through a cash crunch due to lockdown resulting in sharp decline in footfalls in red-light areas. Since sex workers often have no savings and the lockdown has blocked their source of income, they are unable to pay rent and are left at the mercy of house owners. Even with gradual unlocking, they may not get many customers because of social distancing norms and the fear of getting infected.

Where do they stand? The clandestine nature of sex work and the stigma surrounding it restricts access to banks for availing of financial assistance and for financial inclusion. But what would be the social cost for their financial inclusion?

Policymakers should design appropriate programmes for empowerment of sex workers. It also suggests there is an urgent need to strengthen linkages with formal banking institutions for financial inclusion of sex workers which will ultimately help their empowerment.

The writer is Director & CEO, Sayantan Consultants Pvt. Ltd., Kolkata