Bengaluru sex workers say that they were more adversely impacted in the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic even though the lockdown is shorter.

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news Coronavirus Saturday, June 12, 2021 - 13:05

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Aamna*, a sex worker based in Bengaluru, stares at the fast-depleting ration at her house. In spite of some help from NGOs, she says she is struggling to make ends meet. “I am diabetic and have two school-going children. We have expenses including my children’s education, my medication and the house-rent. With the lockdown, even the meagre sum that I earned is gone now. An NGO did give us ration and medicines, but for how long can we survive with the limited ration?” she asks.  

The second wave of the grievous COVID-19 pandemic hit Bengaluru affecting the livelihoods of many. The Karnataka government announced a lockdown on April 27 which has now been extended until June 21 with some relaxations for some districts, including Bengaluru city, from June 14. One of the sections of people who have found themselves at a greater disadvantage are sex workers, who have seen their income dry up to almost nothing almost overnight. Although NGOs like Sadhana Mahila Sangha have extended a helping hand by handing out dry ration kits, those engaged in sex work still have other expenses that they are struggling to meet.

Revathi*, another sex worker based in the city, adds that paying rent has been difficult for them as they did not have work. “I am also engaged in relief work with Sadhana Mahila Sangha and every time I have visited the women, they share how difficult it is to have even two-square meals with no income. ‘Even if we are given dry ration, how will we cook without any access to stoves, gas cylinders to cook the food?’ the women say,” Revathi says.

“I was taken to a Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) hospital, was admitted for 14 days and was given medication but since I returned home, I have received no calls from them enquiring about my health. Nor was I told about how to take care after going back home,” recalls Aamna about the time when she tested positive for the novel coronavirus in the second wave.

Shagufta* says that in nearly a decade of doing sex work, she has not witnessed something as woeful. The lockdown in the second wave was shorter but its impact has been worse than the first lockdown on us, she notes. Shagufta, also a trans woman, says the second wave compelled many of her community to exhaust the little savings they had.

“Even during the first lockdown, we had not faced as much difficulty as now. The second lockdown, albeit shorter, adversely impacted us since we were just starting to earn limited money. The lockdown struck again, leaving us in the lurch. All of it happened during the start of the year, when we all had commitments to fulfil. Our electricity, water and other bills are yet to be paid,” she says.

Shagufta adds that many don’t have many avenues for work except sex work or begging since the state government does not have provisions for their further education or job opportunities. Meanwhile, Aamna pointed out that many of them do not have formal education either, and thus, rarely get other jobs.

Mary* a former sex worker said that she has been trying to help the sex workers who live around her. A trans woman herself, she says that many women of her community have only two vocations -- either begging or sex work. With the lockdown, many are struggling to eat two square meals. Moreover, their access to healthcare has further gotten limited. She adds, “Two women had fever and jaundice. We had to run to nearly 15 different hospitals since many were flooded with COVID-19 patients. Although none of us contracted the infection here, the fear still lingers amongst the community.”

Solidarity Foundation—a Bengaluru-based trust—has been has been working towards providing COVID-19 relief to the sexual and gender minorities including sex workers in the south Indian states of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Tamil Nadu. Pushpa, a freelance journalist and social activist working with the foundation, pointed out that members of the gender and sexual minorities are further distanced from the society and that many come from rural or semi-urban places. They also said that the loss of livelihood was not only due to a lack of physical space but also virtual as many did not have access to internet connectivity.

Activist Madhu Bhushan, who has been working with the sex workers’ community and been providing relief, emphasised that during the first wave of the pandemic, they had received some amount of government help. However, during the second wave, the community received none. “The community does not only need food support, but medical aid as well. The government, following the court’s directive, in the first wave had reached out to the sex workers through the women and child development department. The same effort was not made this year, nor did they reach out to organisations helping sex workers to extend relief packages. Despite having means the government has not reached out,” said Bhushan.

In April 2020, the Karnataka High Court had directed the State government to bring a mechanism in place that would help deliver either cooked meals or dry rations to vulnerable sections including sex workers. However, it was later found out that the relief work did not reach the sex workers. According to a report, many women had not received any help from the government since many did not have an inkling about the relief schemes. Further, opacities were observed in government agencies regarding directive to extend the help. The hesitancy among people to identify themselves as sex workers due to social stigma and discrimination also led to poor implementation of the relief work.

"Many hesitate to identify themselves as sex workers which prevents them from receiving relief. The problem would be solved if the government reached out to the organisations that work with sex workers so the help reaches them," says Madhu. She adds that things will look up for the community if they were not incriminated or stigmatized.

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