While many expected that the state government would provide them with money and relief materials, they found themselves being turned away, left to fend for themselves.

Silhouette of a woman. She is looking down. Representative image from Picxy by Rajastills
news Women and Welfare Sunday, November 22, 2020 - 15:50
Written by  Annam Suresh

Renuka lives in a three-bedroom house in upmarket Koramangala. Her children go to a prestigious school. She can afford these thanks to her rich clients and her three paying guests who too are sex workers. But with her children home since lockdown, she can no longer entertain clients at home. The paying guests could not afford the rent and have gone back to their villages. One of her clients died after contracting COVID-19 a week after visiting her. She got herself tested and was relieved when results came negative. Once lockdown eased, her clients began to pester her, but with the kids at home, she refused to entertain them.

A month after lockdown eased, a drunk client landed at her doorstep and would not take a ‘No’. The argument turned ugly with the neighbours watching. Since then, Renuka has faced hostility and taunts from her neighbours. And the landlord asked her to vacate. Renuka’s travails are not an exception. Bengaluru, unlike Kolkata, Mumbai or Delhi, does not have a designated red-light area. The women either work from rented homes in middle class neighbourhoods, with neighbours none the wiser, or cruise in places like bus terminals and markets, renting rooms in cheap lodges and hotels by the hour. Some rent rooms of other sex workers who work out of their homes, but these are costlier.

The lockdown had literally locked down the livelihood of most of these women. In the absence of the anonymity and fraternity that red-light-areas offer, they had limited access to scattered doles. When the lockdown eased, they were back at their haunts throwing caution to the winds, as an empty stomach overcame the fear of an unseen disease.

Violence both at home and work

Mythily lives in a small house in crowded Adugodi and used to solicit near the Majestic bus terminus. The money she earned kept the domestic violence she suffered from her poorly-earning husband at tolerable levels.

“I told my family I worked as a cook in a few homes, to explain the evening hours of work,” says Mythily. “I earned Rs 10,000 to 15,000 a week. I hid most of it. That has been a help now when income is zero. During the first three months, some NGOs distributed free dry rations to sex workers. That helped, but was not sufficient. We went to different points where food was distributed to migrants, and ate there”.

But when even these options vanished, the domestic violence returned. Now, with the lockdown eased, she is back at Majestic, jostling for the few available clients.

Narmada was a regular at Cubbon Park most evenings, catering to four or five clients a day.  Once lockdown was imposed, the park was deserted. But she hung around. On the second day she was slapped and abused by a policeman. He made her give him free sex. She never  returned to the park.

When she and her family began to starve,  they moved to her in-laws’ place 40 km away. Now they have some food since they have goats, chicken and a small vegetable patch in the small yard.

In the absence of safe place

Shabnam and her two friends, regular cruisers at Majestic and Commercial Street, share a small flat in Thippasandrra. After two months of semi-starvation during lockdown, they began offering virtual sex. The money is transferred to their Paytm accounts. “This is not a bad option,” says Shabnam. She now doesn’t have to haggle or hang around in risky places. There is also no risk of infection. 

Since the lockdown eased, Kavita is back at Majestic after months of near-starvation. But the old lodges where she used to be a regular, are now either closed or refuse to allow people like her. So she started going out late at night and used some of the empty buses to service clients. She was once caught in the act by a driver and it turned into an ugly fight. In the end, he allowed her to use the bus provided she gave him and a couple of his friends free service.

But with the lockdown mostly rolled back, the buses are not empty anymore and Kavita has to plead with lodges for rooms at higher rates.

Shailaja used to entertain men only during the day at her Sarjapur apartment, when her husband would be at work and children at school. Now that is no longer possible. After a couple of COVID-positive cases in her housing complex, the residents’ association is strict about visitors.

She has tied up with another sex worker Manisha, who stays alone. She offers Manisha Rs 150 for every client she entertains. Her family thinks she is working in some small garment unit.

Anjali’s favourite haunt was Chickpet — one of the city’s busiest trading centres, with easy access to lodges in bylanes. Though clients are available now, the lodges are fewer and fussier. Sometimes she goes during closing hours when some shopkeepers will let her into a back room for a quick session. But her earnings are nowhere close to pre-lockdown days. 

“For us the choice is between dying of disease, or starvation,” Anjali laments.

“We cannot wear  masks at all times,” says Anjali “We have to attract clients  quickly. Many shout at us to keep our masks on. Scares us too. I have lost three friends to COVID-19. One of them was already HIV+ve and another had TB.”

Very few have alternatives

Lakshmi and Ravikala who stay together near the Agara Market have opened a stall on the pavement outside their house selling tea, coffee, bajjis, biscuits and bonda. After their roommate contracted COVID-19 and died in hospital, they have been shaken although they themselves have tested negative twice.

Mallika, whose husband now works from home, cooks and delivers food to a few bachelors and seniors in her locality to make ends meet.

It has now become harder for these women to find clients. Not only are there fewer people out, most do not want to risk COVID-19 through careless sex.

Majestic, Chickpet and Commercial Street used to be high-earning areas for sex workers. A few hours of work would fetch them anything between Rs 2000 to 5000. Many of the women worked a few days a week and earned enough to last them the month.

However, with fewer people visiting these areas, there are often fights among the women over potential clients. Friends have become rivals. This often leads to the men fleeing rather than attract unwelcome attention from passersby or cops.

For most sex workers, these are difficult times with less income and multiple risks. Some have settled for lower incomes from the same trade and a frugal lifestyle. Others have changed the way and place of work. Some have moved back to their families in their hometowns. A few have turned to other forms of livelihood.

Keeping body, soul and spirit together has become a desperate struggle for these women.

Why they couldn’t get ration kits

“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.

Less support in Bengaluru than other metro cities

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-19. 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.

Many like Lakshmi and Rita joined the queue of migrants availing cooked meals distributed at various locations. “We were as hungry and penniless as the migrant labourers,” they say “But in some places, the people chased us out saying – ‘Don’t do your dhanda here also. Let these poor people eat’ – although we had also gone only for the food, not to solicit.”

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.

Little support from government

Razia has not been able to get clients even once or twice a week. So she scours garbage for leftover food. Or goes at night to pick leftovers outside food joints.

Apart from free rations and some money – about Rs 1500 to Rs 2000 –  that a few sex workers received in the first two or three months of the lockdown, the women have had to fend for themselves. Some received dry rations from the Karnataka Sex Workers’ Union, various support groups for transpersons, small groups of samaritans and citizens.

But these were all limited owing to paucity of funds, geographical constraints and the ignorance of the sex workers themselves about these distribution campaigns. There were no clearly declared government programmes that the sex workers could avail of. The lack of identity papers like Aadhar or ration cards was also a barrier.

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.

(Some names have been changes to protect identities)

This article was first published as a two-part series on Citizen Matters (Bengaluru edition). The original article can be accessed here


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