International Sex Workers Day: Odisha’s sex workers get little help amid COVID-19 lockdown

The COVID-19 lockdown means a complete loss of income, struggle for daily survival for sex workers across the country

By Ashis Senapati
Published: Tuesday 02 June 2020

Sex workers in Odisha capital Bhubaneswar have been affected by the nationwide lockdown against the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19). The workers, who have little access to healthcare or any other government support, have now lost their regular income, at a time when the world observes the International Sex Workers Day on June 2, 2020.

The Odisha Human Rights Commission (OHRC), in an order on June 1, 2020, directed the Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation (BMC) commissioner to provide ration and other help to sex workers in capital Bhubaneswar.

The OHRC passed the order after a petition was filed by Namrata Chadha, a womens rights activist and chairperson of non-profit Mahila Adhikar Abhiyan before the OHRC.

Chadha, in her petition, highlighted the plight of the sex workers during the lockdown period.

She said while the lockdown had triggered a mass exodus of migrant workers from most cities, thousands of sex workers were trapped in cities across India with nowhere to go.

Sex workers lived on the brink of invisibility, while the lockdown meant a complete loss of income and a struggle for daily survival, Chadha said.

The Rs 20 lakh crore package announced by the Union government had nothing for the benefit of sex workers.

No government help

Sex workers — whenever and wherever possible — responsibly self-isolated in response to the government’s calls, Chadha said in her petition. Sex workers were faced with putting their safety, health and lives on the line just to survive as they were excluded from social protection responses, Chadha said.

Official figures state the number of sex workers in India to be below a million, while activists on the field estimate this number to be anywhere between 1.25 million and three million.

In urban red-light areas, multiple women stay together in squalor: Tiny dilapidated rooms across narrow streets, where social-distancing is impossible to follow. Their financial situation is worse because sex workers often have no savings.

They now risk being homeless, as they are unable to pay rent because of no income.

The core clientele of sex workers has traditionally been migrant workers and men away from their families.

Sex workers now face months without any business, considering migrant workers are also struggling to cope with little to no income and a long-term economic downturn.

While the homeless and beggars were being put in shelters, people rarely acknowledge the existence and plight of sex workers.

The Centre, on March 26, announced the allocation of Rs 1.70 lakh crore under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana to help the poor “fight the battle against coronavirus”.

All women account-holders under the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (PMJDY) would receive cash transfers of Rs 500 per month for the next three months. Very few sex workers, however, have Jan Dhan accounts and most have no documents because their existence is denied by the governments, said Chadha.

The Right To Food as a fundamental right is statutorily imbibed in the National Food Security Act, 2013 (also known as the Right to Food Act). The act aims to provide subsidised food grains to approximately two-thirds of India’s population.

Sex workers, however, are not included as beneficiaries for this statutory relief either.

Access to healthcare

The provision of food, however, is the least of the worries that sex workers face: Several suffer from diseases, especially a high prevalence of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and tuberculosis.

Access to proper healthcare has become increasingly difficult as healthcare centres across the country attempt to deal with rising COVID-19 cases.

The Union government has been negligent about the existence of commercial sex workers and has taken no steps to mitigate their plight in terms of sanctions and packages for them.

On June 2, 1975, approximately 100 sex workers occupied Saint-Nizier Church in France’s Lyon to express anger over their exploitative living conditions. On June 10, the church was raided by police forces, sparking a national movement.

The day the sex workers occupied the church is now celebrated across the world as International Sex Workers Day.

This day, however, has no meaning for sex workers this year as several of them face a tough time because of the pandemic.

“Each year, we organise a meeting on International Sex Workers Day to highlight our demands. But this year we decided against it, to maintain proper social distance,” said a sex worker in Bhubaneswar.

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.