Pune's sex workers, locked-down and forgotten

Christie Syndor & Ojaswin Kathuria
Tuesday, 2 June 2020

"There are a lot of people in each Gali, I know women- both old and young, who have died because they couldn't get food. My next-door neighbour was very weak since she hadn’t eaten properly. She had a big family to take care of. But one day she collapsed and just...died"

Daily wage labourers, migrant workers, small farmers- all have suffered because of the businesses being shut down during the time of lockdown. The plight of most daily wage workers is heard of, however, the story of sex workers remains unheard.

Priya, 23, a sex worker from Budhwar Peth, the famous red-light-area in Pune, claims that people are dying of starvation ever since the lockdown first began. "There are a lot of people in each Gali, I know women- both old and young, who have died because they couldn't get food. My next-door neighbour was very weak since she hadn't eaten properly. She had a big family to take care of. But one day she collapsed and just...died"

Budhwar Peth is the third-largest red-light area in the country with estimated 5000 commercial sex workers. Red-light-areas across the nation have been put under containment zones in fear of the sudden and rapid spread of the COVID-19. But with the business being shut down these commercial sex workers are forced to go without their daily hand to mouth earnings which leaves them with no option but to starve. 

Starved sex workers see no hope of things returning to normal, in a system that is failing to help them. They are illusioned to believe that they can fight a new disease, "Just open our Gali (lane), we will take the precautionary measures and corona won't spread, but we can't leave our kids to starve and die."

Organised prostitution is illegal in India; thus, these workers aren't protected under any labour laws, so there's no one to look after their business. The Rsn20 lakh crore 'Atmanirbhar Bharat' package, which was announced by the Centre last month does not include any benefits for the commercial sex workers (CSW). If indeed people have died out of starvation, this is undoubtedly a bigger humanitarian crisis that needs immediate attention.

"Human rights law mandates that human rights are inalienable, universal, interdependent and indivisible," said Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of UNAIDS.

The Global Network of Sex Work Projects and UNAIDS on April 24, released a statement calling "countries to take immediate, critical action to protect the health and rights of sex workers during the COVID-19 pandemic." 

"Around the world, sex workers are being forgotten in government responses to the COVID-19 crisis. Given the self-isolation of sex workers and their clients, sex workers find themselves unprotected, increasingly vulnerable and unable to provide for themselves and their families," the statement further said.

The implementation of social distancing norms put into place to help curb the spread of the virus is also a luxury for these people when nine women and four to five children share one tight brothel accommodation. Most of these workers live in extremely cramped rooms which are also devoid of a kitchen; they are generally dependent on street food vendors who sell food at cheap rates. Due to the lockdown, these food joints are also closed, making it even harder for this section to score even a meal a day. 

The Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) had distributed small food packages to the workers in Budhwar Peth, but does this help everyone, especially when the families are of five to nine members? This also only applies to the ones who have Aadhar cards and ration cards. Most workers here are victims of sex trafficking and do not have national identity cards and hence can't get food rations. 

Various NGOs are working to provide help to these CSW, since starvation and related deaths is a widespread humanitarian crisis, especially for those whose daily labour is not even legally recognised in the country; the NGOs can only do so much. "There are around 2,000 women in this area. Given our limited resources we prioritise and help those with HIV since their immunities are already low and that makes them more susceptible to the virus," says Seema Wagmode, founder of Kayakalpa NGO.

A lot of the people living in these areas also suffer from diseases like diabetes, hypertension, AIDS, etc., which require daily medication to manage symptoms. However, under the lockdown, it is far from possible to get regular medicines which have led to worsening of health in a lot of these people. "paisa bhi nahi, dukaan bhi nahi hai, hum kidar jae, didi? (we don't have money, and there aren't even any shops here, where do we go now?) " sadly questions a 35-year-old sex worker.

The financial situation of sex workers is worsened because they often have no savings, even the ones who did have now exhausted it in the last few months. Many of them have dependents back home. Now, with no cash coming in, they're afraid they can't pay rent and may end up without a place to live. Most of them have no documents at all to benefit from the welfare schemes of the Governments. 

There have been starvation related deaths since the lockdown began "One of them was very young, about 23-24 years old, she died because she couldn't get proper food, we tried to contact her father back at home in Andhra Pradesh after she passed away, but the father didn't want anything to do with her. We ultimately cremated her body under guidelines of Mahanagar Palika" says Seema. The kids of the deceased sex worker are being taken care of by the staff members of the NGO as of now.

Most of these workers now are uncertain of their future; they can't keep living without paying rent; the landlords will ask them to leave soon. They can't even go back home due to the fear of being ostracised from their communities. The only hope that they have is for the lockdown to be lifted so that they can resume their source of income. But this relaxation of restrictions would be a mere bandage on the entire pandemic crisis. 

The cost of reintegrating sex workers is significantly less than the expense of reopening red-light zones. If red light areas are reopened, the hospitalisation costs for sex workers and ICU admissions will be extremely high. The question now arises - are the authorities ready to tackle this burgeoning crisis? More importantly, the question before that - are the authorities even thinking of them?

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