[In Part 1 of this series we saw that sex workers in Bengaluru are facing starvation and violence due to the COVID lockdown. In Part 2, we explore why they haven’t been able to access aid and support, and how this could change.]
“What is there to feel sorry? They have created their own problems out of greed and lust” says Shamim, waiting for a relative near the Majestic bus station. Shamim was responding to my question: “Where are the women who used to hang out here at night? Any idea how these poor souls are managing?” He hesitantly confesses that he had used their services frequently before the lockdown, but didn’t care about them.
Talk about the problems of sex workers to the man on the street, and eight out of 10 have little sympathy for what they consider self-created problems that anyway come with the territory.
Much of the relief measures for sex workers have come from within their own community groups and NGOs. Those who aligned themselves with some organisation managed to receive dry ration kits during the first two months of the lockdown.
Most, of course, expected that the state government or the BBMP would provide them with much-needed money and relief materials. But were sorely disappointed when they found themselves being turned away from multiple places and were left to fend for themselves.
Others were either unaware of the relief measures announced or had moved out of Bengaluru. Some took up alternate jobs. A few home-based sex workers, who suffered the additional fear of being recognised by neighbours or relatives, relied on free food and ration camps far from their homes. Some found work as maids and cooks nearby since the regular domestic help were not coming to work. Others took to supplying food to people who worked from home.
Most of these women had almost no savings, and had been living hand to mouth. Sometimes just one body at work and several mouths to feed.
Sex workers in Bengaluru got less support than those in other metros
In places like Kolkata, Delhi, Mumbai, Pune and even some smaller towns, the existence of clearly identifiable red-light areas provided a safe and cohesive community where it was easy for the government, NGOs and civil society groups to provide relief materials during COVID. They could easily approach the organisations working there.
However, since Bengaluru does not have defined red-light areas, help came through sex workers’ own community organisations such as Sangama, and only to known cruising points. As a result, a large number of sex workers remained outside the ambit of any support.
Shubha Chacko of the NGO Solidarity Foundation says her organisation managed to distribute dry ration kits to sex workers during the first two months of lockdown through local support organisations who were directly in touch with sex workers on a regular basis. In addition, the foundation arranged for counselling and medical help for women suffering from stress and mental health issues during the lockdown.
“We were going mad with hunger and fear,” recalls Shibani, a Nepali sex worker who mostly catered to businessmen in the Chickpet area. Once they realised that the lockdown was not going to be a short affair, panic set in. The women simply took whatever options they found.
According to a retired government officer who did not wish to be named, the tragedy of the migrants was good media material. Moreover, migrant labourers would be in greater demand than sex-workers. But, “painted lips and sunken cheeks of starving sex workers lining up along dirty streets, their eyes betraying their hunger, both for food and customers, was not a pretty picture for families that were locked-in watching TV together. So few realised the travails of sex workers till they themselves sought help from government and NGOs,” said the officer.
What about government schemes?
Under the Prime Minister’s Garib Kalyan Yojana, Rs 500 per month would be transferred to women’s accounts under the Jan Dhan Yojana for three months, the government had said on March 26, after the lockdown announcement. Most sex workers did not hold a bank account. Even if some like the home-based sex workers did, “Rs 500 is too little to sustain a family – less than what they earned in a day,” said Shibani.
State government departments either were not aware of or were unwilling to share any details of dry ration or relief kits for distribution among sex workers. This despite, according to local media reports, a notification circulated in mid-April, issued after a meeting of senior government officers.
As per the notification, district administrations should distribute ration from July to November to vulnerable sections, including sex workers based on their ration cards. Those without ration cards would get a dry ration kit containing five kg rice, two kg dal, 500 ml oil, 500 g sugar, 500 g salt, and spices, the circular had stated.
Karnataka State Women Development Corporation (KSWDC) has a specific programme for sex workers’ rehabilitation, called Chetana. Under this scheme, financial assistance of Rs 50,000 (Rs 25,000 as loan and the rest as incentive) is given to sex workers for self-employment and to lead a dignified life. But none of the intended beneficiaries I spoke to had any knowledge of this scheme. Neither could anyone from the department give any information.
Several telephone and email enquiries by this journalist to different government agencies – KSWDC, Women and Child Development Department, and BBMP – went unanswered. A couple of officers from the Women and Child Development Department even said that all information regarding relief programmes, including dry food kits, was confidential and could not be shared.
While many NGOs thought the BBMP was entrusted with distributing relief material, Mohan Krishna, Chief Engineer, Lakes, who was overseeing the distribution of relief material, clarified that they did not have any campaign addressing sex workers. The dry ration kits were distributed mainly to migrant construction workers.
Almost all these campaigns lasted only for two rounds of distribution between March end to June. By June, sex workers were already at their tether’s end, having used up their savings, or borrowing to pay rent.
NGO support insufficient
Organisations like Karnataka Sex Workers Union, Sangama, Sadhana Mahila Sangha, Gamana Mahila Vedika Jana Sahayaka Sangha, Society for Informal Education and Development Studies (SIEDS) and a few others, either directly or in collaboration with others, distributed dry ration kits valued at Rs 1700 to Rs 2000 to each sex worker in various parts of Bengaluru.
Nisha Gulur, a trans sex worker from Sangama and former secretary of Karnataka Sex Workers’ Union, said the two organisations as well as several other NGOs had together provided nearly 4000 kits during April and May to sex workers and transpersons, prioritising those with children and elderly family members, and those who were HIV-positive.
The kits consisted of rice, dal, oil, atta, sugar, tea, spices, salt, bathing and washing soap, etc. Kits from different organisations contained different quantities and items. However, only a fraction of the sex-worker and transgender population of Bengaluru, that is mostly floating and street-based, received kits.
Some NGOs raised funds through multiple campaigns, including crowdfunding and collaborations with other NGOs. PUCL (People’s Union for Civil Liberties) and a few other groups too distributed dry ration kits and food packets in different localities, but they were not specifically meant for sex workers. They were intended for migrant labourers and other street dwellers, including sex workers.
What needs to change?
In July, the National Human Rights Commission decided to classify sex workers as ‘informal workers’, thus hoping to destigmatise their work and allowing them to be identified as dignified workers.
“However, this has not substantially changed their position yet, although this might in due course open new avenues for aid and livelihood,” according to M Geetha, Secretary of the Sadhana Mahila Sangha that works with street-based sex workers in the city.
Nisha Gulur commented that sex workers remained stigmatised and excluded from basic rights and necessities even during a pandemic that had forced a nationwide lockdown and paralysed many livelihood activities. Lack of ID papers and proof of address blocked their access to any welfare and healthcare measures they were entitled to. Providing them these papers under relaxed norms could vastly improve their health and lives – socially and economically.
Nisha also added that the Union was looking at other means of livelihood for its members.
Some of the women have managed to find other means of livelihood. Kamini sells tea, dosa, bajjis, a few sweets and biscuits from her one-room house near Kudlu Gate. Her customers are mostly construction workers engaged nearby. “But this is hardly sufficient to meet my expenses. My sister and I continue our sex work too after dark, catering to the labourers in the under-construction buildings.”
A few others opened vegetable stalls or took to working as domestic help. But only until the lockdown eased, after which they went back to sex work.
According to Geetha of Sadhana Mahila Sangha, the women did not possess other skills like sewing that they could turn to. Nor were they interested in long hours of low-paying options.
Manjula says, “We are used to working in short bursts of 15-20 minutes with a customer and earning a few hundred each time. We can earn Rs 1000 to 2000 a day in a few hours. Why start all over again in a new trade and work all day for much less? Once the lockdown is over, we will go back to work. Till then we hope the government or NGOs or the union can help.” Manjula had tried to run a tea stall but closed shop after a month because she didn’t like the work.
Bringing the sex workers into a visible and dignified socio-economic space should be the first step in making them a part of the mainstream population with the guaranteed entitlements that are available to others.