In a first, the Maharashtra government has recognised sex work as work and ordered all Collectors in the State to ensure “free ration and essential services” to women engaged in it.
Though delayed by several months, the letter concedes that the workers face extraordinary challenges due to the loss of income during the COVID-19 lockdown and may be on the brink of starvation.
“The women in sex work and the women who have left sex work have lost their income generation options. Due to lockdown they are not able to get other jobs either, which leads them and their families to starve making it difficult to survive. So it is expected that you should provide free ration and all essential services to the above mentioned women,” according to a government advisory e-mailed on July 23 by Dr. Hrishikesh Yashod, Commissioner, Department of Women and Child Development, Government of Maharashtra.
“This is the first time under COVID-19 that there is an acceptance about the precarious situation sex workers find themselves in,” Meena Seshu, founder of NGO SANGRAM, told The Hindu . “This is also the first time that any government has accepted in the language of a government advisory that they are engaged in work. And the National Network of Sex Workers (NNSW) demands that all States must take a leaf out of this order and issue similar instructions.”
Kiran Deshmukh, president, NNSW, said her organisation welcomed the government’s decision even though it came after a delay of four months. “We expect this order will be implemented on the ground. We would like our house rent to be waived as well as relaxation on electricity bills. The government should ensure that no sex worker is denied free ration for want of a ration card and other documents.”
There are more than 8 lakh sex workers in India, according to the National AIDS Control Organisation’s Phase-3 Programme estimates of 2014. However, according to unofficial estimates the number could be much higher.