Sonagachi sex workers band together to brave the Covid pandemic

 Even as the fear of the third Covid wave lingers, for the sex workers in Kolkata and other districts of Bengal, life is just about limping back to a fragmented, broken and incomplete sense of ‘normalcy’.

This is but a semblance of normalcy, coming as it does after a prolonged period of hardship and difficulty. A ‘sense of normalcy’, which still carries the bitter memories of the pandemic and lockdown, when all the contradictions of a marginalised society and its women workers had burst out like old and simmering wounds.

At Sonagachi, known as the biggest red light area in Asia, the movement towards a sustainable economic life and free social space is still hesitant and slow, but gradually moving towards a zone of new possibilities. Business is just about trickling in. From a scenario of total silence in the lanes and a complete lockdown in terms of trade, the footfalls are gradually returning.

Social activists point out that sex workers are taking “adequate precautions”, including the use of masks, even as they have to continue working because there is no other option. They really don’t have a social and family structure to fall back on, nor do they have the backing of the administration. In more ways than one, their choice of profession, and the prejudices and social stigma attached to it, have pushed them to the invisible and ghettoised margins of society – including in the metropolis.

Interestingly, during the lockdown, even while their earnings became zero, some of the sex workers in Kolkata, as in other cities, discovered for the first time the ‘usefulness’ of what seemed the  as a distant, virtual phenomena: phone sex and online sex. Those who were hesitant in this ‘art’ slowly acquired a certain method of negotiating their way, even while old and familiar clients called on the phone, or interacted online – and deposited the money in their accounts. Some apparently sneaked away from their homes to give the money by hand, and just to say ‘hello’.  However, this was too little and far-between, in the given circumstances.

COVID Response Watch LogoAmong all the migrant and deprived communities of the working class, perhaps the sex workers, living their day-to-day life in dingy, shared and cloistered quarters, forcibly ghettoised and isolated from the so-called mainstream, faced intense economic loss, social discrimination and personal indignity as Covid 19 moved like a deathly and deadly virus in the summer of 2020. Indeed, for the sex workers of Kolkata, it was a sudden and shocking turn of events – a tragic situation which was neither expected nor anticipated.

The pandemic only reinforced the social stigma attached to their existential reality, whereby, traditionally, they have been seen by State, society, and the ‘system’ as ‘objects’  to be isolated, alienated, disciplined and punished.  Even as the draconian and sudden lockdown declared by the Prime Minister on the night of March 24, 2020 compelled tens of thousands of migrant workers and the unorganised working class to move out on the highways and streets to escape crushing poverty and despair, rendering them jobless and homeless in the ghettos of big cities in one stroke, the sex workers of Kolkata and Bengal too found themselves in a serious dilemma, pushing them towards both helplessness and hunger.

‘Business’ suddenly stopped. The footfalls of customers disappeared in the inner lanes of Sonagachi in Kolkata, where several sex workers, their families and children, share modest rented spaces in close proximity. In the lockdown, food and money became scarce. And physical and social distancing due to the virus kept both clients and well-wishers away.

Many of them just could not leave for home. Some others simply disappeared, with many looking for some form of sustenance, especially those who were not registered or identified with a voluntary organisation, or, who did not have proper identity cards or papers for verification.

A survey revealed that a large number of women got into a debt trap as the pandemic unfolded even while there was no work, or avenues to earn basic economic sustenance. The survey, conducted a few months after the lockdown, found that a large number of women wanted to leave the profession in desperation or start anew, but were unable to do so due to the peculiar conditions prevailing during the time amidst the mass fear of Covid, high unemployment and economic stagnation. Many of them could not leave the trade because they had taken loans from pimps, landlords and money-lenders. This was a terrible cycle of economic deprivation, bondage and exploitation, and in the absence of daily earnings, the sex workers were pushed to the edge.

During that difficult period in the early phase of the pandemic and lockdown, voluntary organizations apparently lost contact with some women who used to work and live in the neighbourhood of Sonaghachi.

“We work with more than 16,000 sex workers of Sonagachi, Chetla-Lakhar Math, Kalighat, Kidderpore and Boubazar. Of the 16,000, 4,000-5,000 sex workers are no longer in our contact,” (late) Dr Smarajit Jana, then chief adviser in the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (Durbar), told a media organisation.  “The women managed to return home during the lockdown as they had no income. Some of them came from Murshidabad, Machlandpur, Suri or Sundarbans. But now we are unable to reach out to them, we don’t know how they are doing, if they are able to feed their family or not.”

However, other social activists pointed out that it could very well be that because of the total absence of public transport, many of the women were unable to return, or, perhaps, they got stranded due to the lockdown. Hence, it was too early to say if there are cases of human trafficking.

Some of them reportedly suffered the added social stigma, discrimination and humiliation of being physically blocked if they were able to reach their homes – with people accusing them of being high-risk carriers of the disease. It was truly a difficult scenario for the sex workers.

This is when, among others Durbar,  the largest non-governmental organisation working among the 60,000 plus sex workers of Bengal (with around 20,000 in Kolkata) stepped in decisively, and with a concrete course of action. Soon after, the Trinamool Congress-led West Bengal government followed up with equal concern and compassion. The crisis was taken up frontally by Durbar, and some other organisations, with a lot of help from the civil society, and backed by the state government in Kolkata.

Durbar was founded by Dr Samarjit Jana, a pioneer in creating alternative institutions for marginalised sections of society in the health sector. He worked with the sex workers in Kolkata and Bengal, and instilled a sense of self-esteem, independent thinking, and collective strength and solidarity in them. He inspired the women to stop being cowed down by social stigma and prejudice, and infused the idea of self-respect in labour and work. He instilled in them the seemingly simple but very radical idea that  sex work is as normal, dignified and professional, as all other forms of work.

The sex workers collective, Durbar, which Dr Jana helped set up, worked both independently and in alliance with other organisations working in health, education and women’s welfare. This organisation was solely run by the women themselves, who created their own institutions and need-based structures, including in health, derived from their own existential reality, work and life conditions. Since many women could not have bank accounts, a unique cooperative savings bank of the sex workers was registered – which helped a large number of the cash-starved women immensely during the lockdown.

Even as action was being initiated to combat the economic and social crisis due the pandemic and lockdown, the DMCS said in a statement, “Durbar firmly stands with the marginalized sex workers community during difficult time of pandemic caused by Carona virus and subsequent country wide lockdown and has decided to provide all out support and assistance during and post lockdown period”

According to Durbar, the Supreme Court of India responded to their demands by directing the states to provide dry rations to sex workers without insisting on identity proof: “…It is incumbent on the Central Government and the State Governments/Union Territories to rescue the sex workers who are in dire straits. Starving sex workers are entitled to be provided with dry rations. Therefore, we direct the State Governments and the Union Territories to provide dry rations to the sex workers who are identified by National Aids Control Organisation (NACO) without insisting on proof of identity. The District Legal Services Authorities are directed to take active steps in assisting the distribution of dry rations to the sex workers without insisting on proof of identity…”

Meanwhile, in a process initiated in August 2020, major recommendations made by Durbar were also incorporated in an ‘expert advisory’ formulated by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). The NHRC issued a Human Rights Advisory on the ‘Rights of Women in the Context of Covid-19’ on October 7, 2020. It directed the administration to implement the advisory and submit the action taken report.

According to Durbar, the advisory remarked that the “lockdown with its various restrictions on movement led also to a sudden loss of employment particularly in the informal sector with no alternate source of money, food, or shelter. This has disproportionately affected women who comprise a substantial proportion of such workers. The economic vulnerability of those involved in work that is already stigmatized, such as sex work, has increased exponentially as the nature of sex work demands physical contact, which is being avoided in Covid-19 times. HIV positive sex workers are unable to access antiretroviral therapy, which are essential for their survival.”

Significantly, the recommendations included a moratorium on all loans taken by women workers, including sex workers, from banks and other financial institutions. Note was taken about the harassment of money-lenders, and the NHRC sought suitable administrative action in this regard.

The seven-point recommendations covered the crisis prevailing all over the country. It was addressed to the ministries of women and child development, health and family welfare, consumer affairs, food and public distribution, labour and employment, and social justice and empowerment of all States and Union Territories.

Durbar took the lead in distributing relief with help from socio-religious organizations, individuals, elected representatives, and donor agencies like the Azim Premji Foundation. According to Durbar, it distributed edible food (rice, pulses, soyabean chunks, sugar and edible oil, potato and onions) and healthcare items, plus sanitizers, soaps, toothpaste and sanitary napkins to more than 100,000 beneficiaries. Relief material, food and other essential goods was distributed for all sex workers and their families in Kolkata and in the districts of West Bengal. Besides, it also provided biscuits, oats, exercise books and colour pencils among the children of sex workers. Relief was extended to the LGBT community and other marginalized sections of society also.

Indeed, the West Bengal government too pitched in a big manner. The scheme to provide food and ration to all economically weak families was extended to the sex workers as well. This scheme includes  providing rice, atta, dal, pulses, oil etc to poor and working class families, including in the vast unorganised sector. Indeed, after the recent Bengal polls, this scheme has been turned into a door-to-door distribution network whereby food and ration is provided at the door-step of the families.

Soon after the crisis begun during the first lockdown in March 2020, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had ordered that the police and local administration would distribute food to the sex workers. It was not necessary to show ration cards or any identity proof – they would all get food and ration across the board. The police, in a unique move, went to the areas where the women were facing great difficulties, and distributed food and ration. This gesture of the police was widely appreciated. In some areas, the police reportedly provided cooked food in a community kitchen inside the police station itself.

Other civil society organisations like ‘Ektu Din’ (or ‘Give a Little’) pitched in. Responding to their social media appeal, several individuals joined the campaign and contributed to the fund which helped in supplying essential goods, food, medicine etc. This civil society initiative was also a big morale booster for the women and their children – they were indeed not left alone in this moment of crisis.

“For many reasons several other schemes of the government are not able to reach the sex workers,” said Biplab Mukherjee, Programme Coordinator, Durbar. We are trying to change this on the ground. The West Bengal government has reached out and helped, in terms of food and ration etc, but the lack of identity cards is a big problem for the women to deal with several public issues, including availing welfare schemes of the government.

The recent Lakshmi Bhandar scheme where women are given Rs 500 and Rs 1000 per month, does not need identity proof, and thus it is very helpful, as is the food at doorstep programme of the government. Indeed, we feel, that in such an unprecedented economic crisis scenario, hard cash should be given to the women sex workers.”

Amit Sengupta is Executive Editor, Hardnews and a columnist, currently based in Kolkata

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