As migrant workers across India flock to their villages, struggling for food, rent and wages amid the 21-day countrywide lockdown to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, another section of workers, who remain on the margins, have nowhere to turn to but to civil society. Dependent on daily appointments and income, the sex workers are finding themselves scrambling for basic resources and facing heightened hate and stigma from the society.
Invisible in the eyes of the state
Many workers have not made a penny in weeks and fears of all resources running dry loom large as the lockdown continues. Explaining the situation, a worker on the condition of anonymity from Parbhani district in Maharashtra, told NewsClick, “We are making lists of who is worse off. There is no water and we are starving inside our homes. Over 200 girls were taken out and fed after days in my village. We depended on income that came from the customers at night. We are now dependent on civil society organisations to help us because we are invisible in the eyes of the state, with no documentation. So even when assistance from the state reaches here, it will still not be given to us.”
The women are currently seeking assistance from civil society groups for their basic need of food, shelter and sanitation. Sex work is practised across ages by women and in many cases, these women are the sole bread earners in the families.
A report in India Today about the condition of sex workers in Delhi, quoted a sex worker, Rashmi * (name changed) as saying, “We are stuck in these dirty corridors and the authorities are closely monitoring us.”
She said, "We can't even go down to buy groceries or medicines. Many of us are sick, but now we have no means to reach the doctor or call for help, let alone wearing masks. The police don't really listen to us. We anyway have little money left now. We don't know when this lockdown will end. I wonder if we will survive this.”
Also read: Coronavirus Crisis: How to Reach Out to the Poor and Needy
Transpersons, many of those who are involved in sex work, are also facing heightened stigma. In Hyderabad, a poster that reportedly came up on the walls of Ameerpet metro station said, “Warning: Do not allow Kojja, Hijras near the shops. If you talk to them or have sex with them, you will be infected with CoronaVirus. Beat & drive them away or call 100 immediately. Save people from Corona Virus Hijras.” (sic) A similar poster was spotted in the Raj Bhavan Road as well.
Speaking to NewsClick, Arundhati Ghosh, who is working with a campaign to provide relief to the sex workers in Karnataka, said, “Providing food is the main concern for us right now since this is a daily job, just like any wage workers. Moreover, the stigma and the discrimination is heightened during this period. We are witnessing an exposure of the existing biases, with corona becoming another excuse to marginalise the community further, making the women doubly trapped.”
Ghosh added, “It is becoming difficult for the civil society members to decide who to provide help. The assistance that civil society can offer will also soon dry up.”
Activists state that if the state wants it could provide assistance to the workers by immediately recognising them as a part of the informal workforce. However, they allege that little is being done in that field.