Effects of COVID-19 on Sex Workers in India
As of 26th May, there are 5.5M positive cases worldwide due to COVID-19 and 145K confirmed cases in India alone. COVID-19 has impacted every section of the society but the most ignored ones and the most affected ones are the marginalized sections of society. Daily in the news, we see the problems that the migrant workers in India are facing. They don't have enough food or resources or availability of transportation to go back to their villages. There is still some mismanagement but the government has released some packages to provide them some relief in this situation.
But when we talk about sex workers, their problems are being ignored. This marginalized part of society is taboo for most people and no one wants to talk about them. According to the National Aids Control Organization (NACO), India has close to 6,37,500 sex workers, and over 5 lakhs customers visit the red-light areas daily. Their businesses are being shut down and most probably won't be given a green light soon like other businesses as social distancing can't be maintained in these areas. Places where these red-light areas operate like Delhi, Mumbai, and Kolkata, brothels are jam-packed where social distancing is impossible. Also, these cities are the worst affected due to COVID-19. Delhi's GB Road has more than 3,000 sex workers, housed in 80 small brothels. Kolkata's Sonagachi ward, which is referred to as Asia's largest red-light area, has between 8,000 to 10,000 sex workers.
But social distancing is not the only issue, hygiene is another challenge. With limited access to running water, proper electricity, and resources, brothels remain unhygienic and are a breeding ground for many diseases. What we usually see in the slums, the same geography can be seen here. There are as many as 15 to 20 people sharing a single bathroom. Brothels rarely have kitchens due to inadequate space and women are dependent on vendors for food supply. Under lockdown, vendors were not supposed to operate which raised high concern for the sex workers as this is the loss of their entire ecosystem.
As there is no business that means there is no money. Many women work in this business after escaping from their toxic living or couldn't pursue what they desired. Most of the prostitutes believe that this is better as they are not struggling for food and have a roof on their head. But ever since this pandemic and the announcement of the lockdown, there have been zero customers in the red-light areas and money is drying up for the prostitutes. The women also risk getting trapped in an endless debt cycle with private money lenders. "Interest rates run as high as 12-25% per month, which may take years to repay," says Tejaswi Sevekari of Saheli Sangh, an NGO working with sex workers in Pune. Most sex workers lack a bank account and invest their savings in small gold ornaments to pawn during these tough times.
There is a social stigma or we call it the lack of social acceptance in the society for sex workers, no one is focusing on the shortage of supplies in red light areas. Most of the sex workers come under the migrant category. After the lockdown, many women left for their villages without even knowing if they would accept them or not, but some couldn't manage to leave. According to a report, over 60% of sex workers in Delhi returned to their home states.
The problem is not just one, there are many. Sex workers are 13 times more at risk of HIV compared with the general population. This is due to the increased likelihood of being economically vulnerable and unable to negotiate with customers for the consistent use of condoms during sex. Many sex workers experience violence and criminalization in this business. Though there is scarce reliable evidence of the risk of infection or complications of COVID-19 among people living with HIV, although the risk could be greater among those who are immunocompromised and not on HIV treatment. Obviously, the immune system of these women is highly compromised and if they suffer from the virus then there is a greater probability of death.
Existing mental health problems are likely to be exacerbated by anxiety over income, food, and housing, alongside concerns about infection from continuing to work in the absence of social protection. HIV can be prevented with the use of condom but this thing won't work in case of coronavirus. Even when the lockdown lifts, if they start taking clients, there is no way of knowing who's carrying the virus and who isn't.
The government strictly denies the functioning of prostitution in the country and with this, the government is not providing any support to them. With no government support, the onus to help these women has fallen sharply on the voluntary sector and NGOs. Government of India is unlikely to open brothels and prostitution businesses so early because researchers including Yale School of Medicine in the US, said closing down these places may reduce projected COVID-19 death toll increase in India by 72% post the easing of lockdown measures. Based on the modeling study and according to the scientists of Yale School of Medicine, the measure may also reduce COVID-19 cases by a fifth in Mumbai, by 27% in Pune, and 31% in Delhi.
The stance of government for not opening the brothels is clearly justified but at least now the government should recognize the fact that prostitution is functioning and is providing a livelihood for a large number of discarded and socially unwanted women so that their basic needs could be fulfilled and NGOs could work efficiently for required measures. If the government is not willing to accept this fact then there is a need for the hour to come up with alternative livelihood options for sex workers.