A survey conducted by various organisations working with sex workers in Andhra Pradesh has revealed that there are nearly 3,000 sex workers in Prakasam, Guntur and Krishna districts who are above 40 years of age, and are struggling with various health complications as well as lack of alternate livelihood options. The number of struggling, retired sex workers is estimated to be around 15,000 to 20,000 across the state. Leaders of Vimukti, a collective of survivors of commercial sexual exploitation in Andhra Pradesh, and ILFAT (Indian Leadership Forum Against Trafficking), have sought support from the state government to identify and rehabilitate the retired sex workers by providing alternative income sources and better access to government welfare schemes.
According to the survey conducted to identify the former sex workers who are now out of work because of their age, many of them are living alone while suffering from various health complications. Demanding support from the state Women Development and Child Welfare Department, the collective said in a letter that more than 45% of the sex workers above 40 years of age do not have family members or any immediate support system to seek help.
Apart from HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, the survey revealed that many of the women also suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, high amounts of blood sugar, respiratory infections and problems with their vision. While many of these complications need expensive treatments and medication, many of the sex workers do not have insurance cover, the survey has revealed. With the pandemic resulting in migration of those who are out of work in urban areas back to villages, leaders of Vimukti wrote that many retired sex workers have become untraceable.
Access to welfare
Earlier in September, the Supreme Court had ordered states to supply dry ration to sex workers identified by NACO (National AIDS Control Organisation) and district authorities, regardless of ration card and other identify proof, as the pandemic had had a huge impact on their livelihood. However, at the ground level, access to government welfare remains poor among sex workers in the state, according to Rammohan of the NGO HELP, which is associated with the Vimukti collective.
According to a response from the Andhra Pradesh State AIDS Control Society (APSACS) to an RTI (Right to Information) petition filed by Vimukti, a total of around 1 lakh active female sex workers identified by the body as of March 2020, enrolled as part of its Targeted Intervention (TI) program. The response in September showed that even among the sex workers identified by the APSACS, many of them lack access to welfare schemes that they are eligible for.
According to the reply from APSACS, around 95% of the identified sex workers had an Aadhaar card, while nearly 97% of those eligible to have voter card and ration card, did have these documents. Among those women who were eligible for various welfare schemes, some schemes, like Amma Vodi (assistance to mothers of school children), saw a high number of eligible sex workers availing the scheme (92%). However, only 68% of the eligible sex workers had availed the Jagananna Vidya Deevena scheme for 2019-2020 (scholarship for higher education). Under the government housing scheme for poor, only 38% of eligible sex workers had been able to access the scheme, the response revealed.
When it came to schemes that could provide additional income or an investment into a livelihood source, Kapu Nestham (Rs 15,000 annual assistance to Kapu women aged between 45 and 60) saw only 24% eligible women availing the scheme. Chedodu was availed by 42% eligible sex workers, Cheyutha by 32% and the Union governmentâ€™s Mudra Yojana Scheme for Women was only accessed by 13% of eligible sex workers.
While the Aarogyasri health insurance scheme saw 93% access, the Arogya Asara scheme, which provides assistance for the recovery period after medical procedures, saw only 52% access. Among pension programs, the state governmentâ€™s YSR Pension Kanuka saw 66% eligible women receiving the benefits, while only 28% eligible women were enrolled in the Atal Pension Yojana scheme, according to APSACSâ€™s response.
Vimukti has pointed out that the access seems particularly low among many schemes that could be beneficial for retired sex workers with health complications, and lack of income and support. Rammohan notes that their vulnerability, exacerbated by the pandemic, could push the retired sex workers to further enable trafficking of young mwomen and their exploitation. He also noted that the APSACS data only reflects the status of sex workers identified by the organisation, and the number of unidentified sex workers and the lack of access to welfare among them would be a lot higher.
The collective has demanded that the government of Andhra Pradesh must enable the rehabilitation of middle-aged sex workers who are out of work, by recruiting them as workers and cooks in Anganwadi centres and hostels by the government. They have also demanded that rehabilitation programs must be driven by reestablishing the district-level committees which went defunct since the stateâ€™s bifurcation, and special rehabilitation schemes must be designed to protect middle-aged and elderly sex-workers by providing free healthcare and ration.