New Delhi: The Odisha Human Rights Commission has passed an order to the Commissioner, Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation, to provide food and ration to the commercial sex workers amid lockdown.
In its order, it has specified that the ration should be given irrespective of whether they have ration cards or not. The order further specified that strict compliance should be ensured and reported in the next hearing.
The order was passed following a petition by Namrata Chadda, chairperson of MADHYAM and Mahila Adhikar Abhyan, where she had highlighted the plight of the sex workers in the lockdown and amid the ongoing health scenario. She has been arranging ration from NGOs and other sources for them.
Intach member Anil Dhir, who had earlier written to the authorities about the condition of the sex workers of Bhubaneswar and Paradeep, said that they were among the most vulnerable and marginalised groups affected by the COVID-19 crisis. The loss of income has put them in depths of anxiety and deprivation.
Stating that none of them have Jan Dhan accounts even though they have Aadhaar cards, Dhir has requested the authorities to convert their existing bank accounts into Jan Dhan accounts so that they receive Rs 500 each month as announced by the government under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana. All women account-holders under the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (PMJDY) are eligible to receive direct cash transfers of Rs 500 per month for next three months.
Further, the government must announce a specific economic package for them to help them tide over the crisis, he said.
Pradipta Tripathy, general secretary of Bharat Raksha Manch, said that this was the right opportunity for the government to take measures for rehabilitating the sex workers who have been forced into the trade. He said that alternate livelihood scopes should be explored by the authorities.
In fact, the government's decision to impose a strict lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus triggered a mass exodus of migrant workers from cities; most of the economic activity came to a standstill.
But for thousands of sex workers living in cities across India, there is nowhere to go. They live on the brink of invisibility; the lockdown has meant a complete loss of income and a struggle for daily survival.
Sex workers don’t feature anywhere as a marginalised group. The government doesn’t seem to want to accept that there’s prostitution in the country.
The Rs 20 lakh crore package announced by the government has nothing for the benefit of sex workers. In April this year, the Global Network of Sex Work Projects and UNAIDS released a report on the hardship and discrimination faced by sex workers during the coronavirus pandemic worldwide and urged countries to ensure that their human rights be respected and fulfilled.
The statement read: "Whenever and wherever possible, sex workers are responsibly self-isolating in response to governments' calls. However, when they are excluded from COVID-19 social protection responses, sex workers are faced with putting their safety, their health and their lives at increased risk just to survive..."
While the official figures of the number of sex workers in India is below a million, activists who are working in the field estimate that the figure could be anywhere between 1.25 million and 3 million. In the urban red-light areas, multiple women live together in squalors, in tiny dilapidated rooms which stand cheek by jowl on narrow streets, where social distancing is impossible to follow.
Sex workers often have no savings. Now, with no cash coming in, they fear not being able to pay rent and may end up without a place to live. Even as the homeless and beggars are being put in shelters, nobody seem to be acknowledging the existence and plight of the sex workers.
On March 26, the government had announced an allocation of Rs 1.70 lakh crore under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana to help the poor “fight the battle against Corona Virus”. Sadly, very few of the sex workers have Jan Dhan accounts; in fact, most of them have no documents at all.
Arun Kumar Das is a Delhi-based journalist and can be contacted at [email protected]. The views are personal.
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