On the periphery


India’s sex workers were vulnerable even before the pandemic.

Sex Workers Vendors

By ten in the morning the shops are open but in Sangli, 376 kilometres from Mumbai, goods on shelves gather dust. Kiran Deshmukh woke in no great haste. The empty roads meant she had little to do.

Deshmukh has been a sex worker in Sangli for 27 years. She was only 16 years old when she ran away from Pune, and found herself in town by accident – having never been on a train, she got off at Sangli, believing it was Kolkata. She enjoys the freedom sex work provides her, particularly the ability to work her own hours on her own terms. This has allowed her to buy a home, and raise and educate three children. Deshmukh has also worked for Sangram, an organisation that focuses on the prevention of gender-based violence and HIV/AIDS, for over a decade. She is now in charge of the Sangli branch. Lately, with work becoming scarce and people fighting over clients, she has been charged with keeping the peace between members of her community as well.

In the evening, Deshmukh begins her rounds. It is 3am the next morning when she retires to bed – exhausted, hungry, with no earnings to show for the night. Even her regular clients hesitate to visit due to fear of COVID-19 transmission.

Most of India’s estimated 1.26 million female sex workers, as per a 2010-2011 National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) Report, were impacted by the lockdown. (Another 2016 survey by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS), calculated India’s sex worker population to be 657,800, though the real number is likely to be much higher.) There is no government data on this community, who have always lived on the periphery of Indian society. This lack of data would have real impact following the spread of COVID-19.

No time to prepare

On 25 March 2020, the Indian government imposed a lockdown in response to the viral outbreak. Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the government’s intention just one day before, on 24 March. Overnight, millions of migrant workers found themselves stranded, with no way to earn money to cover their living expenses or travel back home. Their plight worsened when travel across states was banned, even though the implementation was uneven.

For sex workers across India, this meant no clients. The suddenness of the announcement left them with no time to prepare. Like many sex workers, Deshmukh had meagre savings; before COVID-19 hit, she earned INR 500 per client.

The government initially said the lockdown would last 21 days. Then, as COVID-19 rapidly spread in Indian cities, lockdown was extended four times until 31 May 2020. For three months, Deshmukh, like many Indians, remained within her rented home. She was unable to reach her children and her colleagues; her clientele disappeared. Suffering from pre-existing medical conditions including HIV-2 and a chronic hernia, Deshmukh could not travel even to get medications or see a doctor. Eventually, she was able to procure medicine with Sangram’s help, but found no reprieve from the constant ache in her groin.

By 22 March, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare sent out an advisory to all Indian hospitals, instructing them to prepare to receive an influx of COVID-19 cases. The advisory also said that people should not come in for regular outpatient department visits, and prioritised the care of those exhibiting flu and other symptoms associated with COVID-19. Even after lockdown ended, the isolated wards meant sex workers could not go to the hospitals. After much chaos, Sangli’s sex workers heard that medicines and medical aid were being distributed in a nearby local clinic. But, without any official announcements from the state, only a handful managed to get any help.

For food, sex workers in Sangli relied on Sangram and not the government. But for this aid and similar schemes by NGOs across India, sex workers would have starved  according to Sudhir, a transgender sex worker from Sangli. With no money for rent, and mounting water and electricity bills, Sudhir, Kiran and other sex workers took out loans from unregulated money-lenders at high interest rates of between 40 and50 percent.

The situation was more difficult for sex workers in urban areas, where the enforcement of lockdown was more even and pronounced. A study titled ‘Modelling the Effect of Continued Closure of Red-Light Areas on COVID-19 Transmission in India’ initially released in May 2020 by researchers from Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts General Hospital, and the Yale School of Public Health, claimed that shutting down red-light districts in Mumbai, New Delhi, Nagpur, Kolkata and Pune would reduce the number of new COVID-19 cases by 72 percent and deaths by 63 percent. The study was widely publicised in the Indian media. Sex workers and NGOs rallied against the study, pointing out that it was not peer-reviewed, with some claiming pre-existing bias had marred the results. After the uproar, it was reported on 8 July that Yale directed a review of the controversial study.

With the announcement of national lockdown, the red-light districts were turned into no-go zones. Authorities blocked all roads leading in and out, unlike in other areas where lockdown was more loosely enforced. With NGOs and aid organisations that monitored sex worker rights unable to carry out their work, many sex workers also reported being detained by local police without cause. The Indian Supreme Court, in 2011, upheld adult sex workers’ right to a life of dignity. Yet, on 24 September, the Mumbai High Court had to reiterate the law while ordering local authorities to release three adult women unlawfully confined in a state corrective institution in the city.

The sex workers living in the cities, most of whom come from villages across India as well as parts of Southasia, found themselves crammed in small spaces, with little to no prospect of work, and neglected by the government. Though the government announced several economic packages and Public Distribution Schemes (PDS) to provide low income-earning citizens with basic necessities, applying to these programmes initially required identification papers such as ration cards and Below Poverty Line (BPL) cards. Over 43 percent of Indian sex workers do not have a ration card and a mere 13 percent have a BPL card, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) reported based on interviews given in 2006. Those who did have the documents were under lockdown and were given only two days to apply for relief, sex workers said. In the end, many were unable to procure basic food and medicine from the government’s COVID-19 relief packages for months.

In May, Prerana conducted a survey in Mumbai’s red-light area to gauge the living and social conditions of sex workers. The results were shocking. The NGO found that a majority of sex workers from Kamathipura and Falkland Road (60 and 73 percent respectively) relied on food donations by NGOs and civil society. Forty-six percent of the women in Mumbai’s Falkland Road had borrowed money between April 1 and April 15 alone. Many had borrowed INR 10,000 several times over from money-lenders with no idea of the rate of interest they’d have to pay. 

For most sex workers, the biggest expenditure was rent. Prerana’s survey found that most paid between INR 6000 to 9000 for a single room, and that was over and above what it cost to rent rooms for business in brothels. In Sangli, Deshmukh pays INR 5000 to a brothel in Gokulnagar near her home, where she meets clients. Others have to pay by the hour, or risk servicing clients in whatever dark alley they find, which poses its own risks. 

The hijra community

Sudhir is 45 years old and part of India’s hijra population. She studied engineering and found a job near Sangli to support her mother and two sisters. Unfortunately, Sudhir was targeted by her supervisors because of her transgender identity. Eventually when the harassment got too much to handle, she left her engineering job and moved back home. Here, she met other people from the transgender community and began working at Sangram. A lack of alternatives led her to sex work.

As part of the hijra community, Sudhir must follow strict rules. Prior to the Indian Supreme Court’s 2014 decision recognising the third gender, the hijra community was subject to brutal harassment due to colonial-era laws. Six years later, societal stigma and the self-policed nature of their society remains all but intact.

Hijras live within their community and answer to an elder or den mother, known as nayaks and gurus. The rules imposed on them are unwavering – Sudhir says hijras cannot openly say they are doing sex work, and they are likely to be shunned if they publicly disclose this. Those like Sudhir who are truthful about their work cannot take part in the other income-generating activities of hijra society.

Despite these rules, according to  the National Aids Control Organisation’s (NACO) estimation, of 62,137 transgender people in India, 62 percent were engaged in sex work.

After transgender activists wrote to the union government about their plight, it was announced that INR 1500 a month would be granted to the community members from the National Institute of Social Defence (NISD), under the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment. The application for the grant was available on the NISD website, and was thus inaccessible to people without computers or data on their mobile phones. Those who did not know how to read or write found themselves at a loss. Only a few were able to fill the forms required for getting aid. After five days, the form became unavailable on the website, and at the time of publication of this story, it remains inaccessible. Only 24 of the 75 applicants from Sangli have received any grant money to date. After the first month, the government funds stopped coming. No one has received a penny since April, Sudhir said.

In an interview with The Wire, Meera Sanghamitra, trans activist and convenor of the National Alliance of People’s Movement in Telangana confirmed that less than one percent of the transgender community in India have received NISD assistance.

Sudhir relied on Sangram for food, and on a few patrons who would put cash in her Gpay account from time to time to pay rent and bills. At home, her mother and sisters relied on her bringing in income. This created further pressure, increasing her depression and anxiety to nearly unmanageable levels. “I’ve thought about suicide a lot over these past six months,” she said.

Shut off from support

In a 2019 study, ‘Suicide Attempts and Pattern Among the Beginners and Established Female Commercial Sex Workers’. researchers found that 68 of the 100 interviewed sex workers between the ages 18 to 28-years-old attempted suicide at least once in their lifetime. Thirty-two had attempted to end their lives at least twice that year. The study found that there was a strong relationship between the number of years of commercial sex work, and the number and pattern of attempted deaths by suicide. Even among the more experienced workers, aged between 30 and 45 years (of which a further 100 were interviewed) 70 had made one attempt in the past two years.

COVID-19’s decimation of sex worker’s livelihoods has brought these numbers into sharp relief. Sangeeta, who is 36-years-old, recalled a friend’s death just days after the lockdown was imposed. Sangeeta met Neha (name changed) when the former was helping the National Network of Sex Workers (NNSW) conduct a survey to find out what people needed. The young woman was very anxious and kept saying she had no money, no clients and was feeling feverish. She kept asking when the lockdown would end, Sangeeta recalled.

Sangeeta’s voice cracks retelling Neha’s story. “I told her we are all in the same position... I said I would meet her after my work for NNSW was finished for the day.” That was the last time anyone saw Neha alive. The 30-year-old was found dead the next morning in her rented room. No one heard her screams; only her landlord checked on her in the early hours of the morning.

To make matters worse, local ambulance services refused to transport Neha’s remains to her family in Karnataka. Eventually, a friend with a car and license agreed to do so, but asked for INR 40,000 for their trouble.

Sudhir also recalled a colleague from the transgender community who died by suicide during lockdown. The person lived by themselves in a village 50 kilometres from Sangli. The lockdown isolated them from the hijra community. Due to stigma and familial abandonment, transgender women and men are more susceptible to depression across the world and the same holds true of Indian hijras. Sudhir recalled them calling her repeatedly in a state of anxiety. Restrictions on movement prevented anyone from the community from being able to visit or bring them over to Sangli. Two days passed before Sudhir and other members from the community came to know of their friend’s death.

To counter self-harm patterns of sex workers, community members like Kiran and Sudhir, working in conjunction with Sangram, NNSW and Prerana, hold regular Zoom calls with other members. In these calls, they discuss safety, protection against COVID-19, and mental health issues. 

Post lockdown life

On 1 July, the Indian government announced relaxation measures, with a gradual opening up in several phases outside of containment areas. The latest phase, Unlock 6.0, has seen some higher institutions opening up for postgraduate students. After months of living hand-to-mouth, and with COVID-19’s continued spread across the country, there appears little scope for sex work which demands physical proximity. Many sex workers in metro cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata returned to their villages.

But just as migrant workers travelled across the country only to be shunned by the people in their villages, sex workers were also stopped from returning home. Many women expressed this concern to volunteers from Prerana. They were certain their families wouldn’t welcome them if they had no money to offer.

Those who remained in urban red-light districts were faced with a different plight. The lockdown had ended, but without the migrant labourers returning, they had no clients. Where they did, COVID-19’s continued spread scared old and new clients alike, despite the sex-worker community actively working to limit transmission.

As with HIV, sex workers have been quick to learn the modes of transmission of COVID-19, and to educate their clients. Across India, sex workers have developed safety guidelines. Their clients have to wear a mask and cannot take it off, even during intercourse. Kissing is no longer allowed. In brothels and private work spaces, sex workers keep buckets outside their rooms and ask clients to wash their hands and feet. Sanitisers are a must, and clients are told to keep their shoes outside and wash their feet before entering the rooms. If a client refuses to comply, they are not allowed into the room or brothel, and sex workers withhold services.

In urban red-light areas like New Delhi’s GB Road, the brothels have instituted the same guidelines. Most buildings have large bottles of sanitisers and boxes of face masks in the lobbies. Clients do complain that the measures are not pleasurable. But sex workers explain that it is for everyone’s safety, said Neha (name changed on request), who runs a brothel on GB road. Due to inadequate research and widespread misinformation around modes of transmission for COVID-19, the pandemic has frightened even those sex workers who dealt with the HIV virus.

Pushpa (name changed on request) is sitting next to Neha as we sip on water, baking in the hottest September in New Delhi in a decade. The news of asymptomatic carriers of the coronavirus has also shaken the community to its core. That, and the likelihood of being exposed to someone who is sick but doesn’t take precautions, led them to insist on strict guidelines for providing services. Not everyone understands or appreciates being coached on safety measures by sex workers, and instituting these measures has caused loss of business, said Pushpa. “But that is better than losing our lives,” she added.

Many sex workers have found alternative ways to conduct business. Amol, a 27-year-old male sex worker, resorted to dating apps such as Grindr to find new clients. He and other sex workers are normalising using Whatsapp video and voice chats, and cybersex, instead of in-person relations.

This decreases risk of infection to both sex workers and clients who need not come into physical contact. On specific request, sex workers send pictures and recorded videos. However, mindful of their privacy and stories of men uploading compromising videos without consent, they always request clients to delete the media files after they are done, said Amol.

These new methods are not without their own risks and pitfalls. For providing digital pleasure, sex workers can earn up to INR 300 (a sharp drop from the INR 500 – 600 for in-person services.)

It is not unusual for sex workers to provide services only to have a client tell them that their data isn’t working, or that they will send the money through Google Pay afterwards. But these promises are almost never kept. They switch off their phones, leaving workers with no means to find or reach them to demand payment.

Men who have sex with men (MSM) such as Anmol lead two lives. Their families do not know they are sex workers – many say they have a night shift in an office or they drive taxis at night. They wear pants and a shirt during the day at home, and dress in drag at night.

The secrecy of their livelihood makes MSMs and transgender sex workers especially vulnerable to blackmail. Women sex workers are not spared. Kushwa (name changed on request), a 30-year-old Maharashtrian sex worker recently filed a criminal complaint against a client for distributing compromising videos to his friends without her consent. The man first tried to blackmail Kushwa, but she had no money to pay him. Then he started selling the videos to her acquaintances. Like many sex workers, Kushwa hides her profession from her family, including her two children.

NNSW and Sangram helped Kushwa complain to the local police. Their workers taught her how to file a first information report (FIR). Initially the police would not write in the complaint that Kushwa is a sex worker, saying it would weaken her case. But Kushwa insisted, for when the case comes up in court, the bench would likely draw adverse inferences if she withheld information in her complaint, she pointed out.

A ray of hope from the Supreme Court

On 29 September, the Indian Supreme Court directed all states to give sex workers dry rations without insisting on identification papers. However, there were caveats – the Court said the rations would be available to sex workers who had been identified by India’s National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) and district legal authorities. 

Meena Seshu said those who were not registered could go to the District Legal Aid Service authority and enlist there so that they could receive rations.

But doing so could impact sex workers who have not publicly disclosed their profession –  be it in their neighbourhood or district. Such sex workers have a bitter choice: starve, or go to the district legal aid office knowing that their community will ostracise them and their children if they are spotted.

In a 7 October advisory on the rights of women during the pandemic, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) recognised sex workers as informal workers, opening doors for Indian sex workers who were excluded from government COVID-19 relief packages, and reducing stigma against the profession.

But the NHRC’s advisory is not welcomed by all stakeholders. A few anti-trafficking NGOs, most notably Prajwala, have come out strongly against it, writing to the NHRC on the grounds that sex work is illegal under India’s Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, and that most women don’t enter the profession by choice. Instead of formal recognition, these organisations asked for relief, aid and scholarships to be provided. Afraid the first win they had since March would be eroded, 12,000 sex workers and women right’s activists responded by writing to the NHRC as well, asking the organisation to respect their choice of profession.

On 20 October, Modi addressed the country urging citizens to remember that while the lockdown was over, the virus remained. He urged the public to remain at home, maintain social distance, and wear their masks. With cases escalating in Delhi again, another lockdown is not outside the realm of possibility. But for sex workers, already living on borrowed money, another lockdown would be shattering. They were vulnerable even before the pandemic, and will remain so in the future.

(This article was first published in Himal Southasian.)