“I am now reduced to a beggar and rely entirely on free cooked meals distributed in our area,” says Laxmi Mane (name changed), a 32-year-old sex worker in Pune’s largest red light district, Budhwar Peth. The lockdown and the fear of COVID-19 has meant that this primary bread winner of her family of five has no source of income now, and perhaps for months to come.
The financial worries continue to mount — an unpaid loan, overdue house rent, maintenance costs, and uncertainity over the future of her business.
“After the lockdown is over, there will be no business. Earlier, it was the note ban (demonetisation) which reduced our earnings from ₹15,000-₹20,000 to ₹7,000 as many clients stopped visiting us. Now, clients will worry about whom we have come in contact with. These thoughts keep gnawing on me,” she said in an interview over telephone. Ms. Mane earns nearly ₹7,000 per month, while her husband earns nearly ₹6,000 per month from his roadside food stall, which is also shut.
With the lockdown being extended in Maharashtra until April 30, Ms. Mane is also anxious about her three children, who study at a residential school in Ahmednagar and of whom she has no information. “I used to contact them through their teacher’s mobile phone. Now that schools are shut, teachers are also not in touch with them. My children had to return home next month for the summer vacation,” she said.
There are approximately 1,700 sex workers living in Budhwar Peth, apart from nearly 300 who have fled to their homes because of the lockdown. Food provision is the least of their worries.
“There are other needs too. Many women have families to support in their villages, childcare has become a huge problem as day and night care shelters have shut down and children spend their entire day in cramped brothels. Routine medical needs of those who suffer from diabetes and hypertension are being ignored and then there is the issue of mental health, especially with uncertainity over resumption of business,” said Tejaswi Sevekari, executive director, Saheli Sangh, a sex worker's collective. She is concerned that it may take 8-12 months for sex workers to be able to resume their livelihood.
In the initial days of the lockdown, HIV+ women were unable to access third-line anti-retroviral therapy (ART) — higher treatment regimen for those who fail the first and second line of treatment — as it entailed traveling to Mumbai. After the National Network of Sex Workers (NNSW) moved the Bombay High Court, district authorities were ordered to make suitable arrangements.
In Gumla, where sex workers earn ₹40-₹50 per client or sometimes offer services in kind, such as in return for tilling or harvesting of her farmland, HIV survivors may face problems in accessing ART, for which they need to travel to Sadar Hospital in Ranchi, explained Pushpa Sharma from Srijan Foundation.
Many daily wagers, who travel to Ranchi and sometimes provide sex when they can’t find other work, found themselves stranded and unable to return home when the lockdown was announced. “As a result, they have no identity proof or ration card to avail benefits,” added Ms. Sharma.
Food and dry ration have been made available to migrant workers, both daily wagers as well as sex workers, in the southern State. The supply of ART drugs for HIV+ women, which were earlier available at Taluk hospitals has been made available at primary health care centres to ensure easy access despite restrictions on movement, said Rajneesh M. R. of the Kerala Network of Sex Workers, which is active in seven districts and has a total of 4,000 members.
While at many places, including in Maharashtra, PDS (public distribution system) ration has only started trickling in now, a collective of sex workers has been active since February, holding awareness campaigns on precautions to be taken to avoid coronavirus infections, such as turning back clients with symptoms.
The National Network of Sex Workers (NNSW), comprising 50,000 female, transgender and male sex workers, also prepared a list of sex workers in immediate need of help and sent 700 food kits to different parts of the country. It is now preparing a list of workers with comorbidities of hypertension and diabetes, which are known to make people more vulnerable to COVID-19 infections, so that they have uninterrupted access to supply of medicines, according to Aarthi Pai, Legal Advisor for the NNSW. She worries, though, about the extension of the lockdown, and raising funds and resources for several months for the vast majority of members for whom the sex trade is unlikely to be the same again.