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Coronavirus | Pandemic norms put Bhopal’s sex workers in a bind

With no one to guide them through profession-specific precautions, sex workers simply follow those prescribed for the general public.

With no one to guide them through profession-specific precautions, sex workers simply follow those prescribed for the general public.   | Photo Credit: Bhagya Prakash K

Whenever the COVID-19 advisory chimes in on her phone — maintain a distance of at least two yards with others and always wear a facemask — Kajal* is caught in a bind. A sex worker for eight years, she wonders how to keep the virus away yet continue earning.

Also Read | Delhi’s red light area resumes business after COVID-19 lockdown, embraces unwritten protocols to ensure safety

“New clients fear if we have the disease, but what about them? Even we fear they might have it,” said Kajal, 38, whose husband, a driver with an LPG gas agency, and daughter, don’t know about her work. At least four clients approached her every day before the pandemic struck, but now even if one came, she considers herself lucky.

Bleak finances

Nearly 1,500 female sex workers in Bhopal, mostly from low-income families, live with the constant fear of having contracted the illness, given the physical intimacy which characterises their profession. Wages have crashed as apprehensive clients are short of the paying power themselves: the pandemic has snatched jobs and hobbled businesses. And bleak finances at households after the pandemic-induced-lockdown is pushing more and more women, even minor girls, into the work.

Still, to ensure her daughter’s schooling continues, Kajal can’t depend entirely on her husband, who makes a mere ₹5,000 a month. Moreover, there is the added burden of paying ₹4,000 rent for a one-room apartment she and three other sex workers have taken. “Several workers have given up such rooms. They now visit the client’s residence which can be unsafe or sit home jobless,” she says.

With no one to guide them through profession-specific precautions, sex workers simply follow those prescribed for the general public.

Also Read | Desperation forces sex workers to risk COVID-19

The lockdown-induced-economic crisis has also pushed tens into sex work in Bhopal. Recently, a 15-year-old girl, responsible for a younger brother after her mother died during the lockdown, took up the profession as working as a domestic help didn’t work, for households are still loath to allow outsiders inside.

Hefty investments

“Our work will come back on track only after the pandemic goes away. But people say it is here to stay,” said Manisha, 42, whose husband is a contractor. Whereas Kajal is now desperate to switch to an alternative profession, perhaps opening a boutique, for it will offer a stable income and reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19 or STDs and harassment by the police. “But other professions will require hefty investments. Where will we get money during the pandemic?” she asked.

Also Read | Maharashtra govt. directs officials to help sex workers

Only regular clients have come to the rescue of the workers during the lockdown. While Kajal received ₹10,000 in advance from a client, who’ll recover the amount later, Manisha too had taken credit from her boyfriend. “We simply tell our families we work at offices and got the loan from our employers,” said Kajal.

Six-seven sex workers in Bhopal had also tested positive for COVID-19, though not through their profession, said Rajesh Chouhan, project manager, Centre for Advanced Research and Development, an NGO. “Ensuring safe sex among the workers during the lockdown has been a challenge. But we distributed condoms among workers in bulk earlier,” he said. Of the city’s 1,200 workers registered with the group, around 800-900 were home-based.

*Names changed

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Printable version | Sep 19, 2020 10:29:43 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/pandemic-norms-put-bhopals-sex-workers-in-a-bind/article32309528.ece

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