The emergence of COVID-19 paved the way to complete lockdown across India. As the country was on halt, the Centre and the state government announced COVID relief fund to vulnerable populations such as migrant labourers, unorganized labourers, women and farmers. The Government of India and the World Bank also signed a $400 million project to support India’s efforts at providing social assistance to the poor and vulnerable households, severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. But, no COVID relief package was sanctioned to the community of sex workers.
In India, sex workers fall under the informal category of work as the law forbids it and currently stands irregulated. Around 68% of women entered sex work because of poverty, poor socio-economic conditions, violence and exploitation in marriage and other areas. While many young girls from poorer or backward regions in rural India are persuaded with the false promise of a job and a chance of a better life in the city. These young women end up in brothels and are forced into prostitution.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, sex workers are unable to work and are struggling to access basic needs. According to the National Aids Control Organisation, of the total 7.76 lakh sex workers in India, over 1.3 lakh are from Delhi, Maharashtra and West Bengal. By end of 2020, over 90 per cent of commercial sex workers across these three states are pushed into permanent debt bondage. During the initial lockdown period, sex- workers' survived the three-month lockdown on borrowings from brothel owners and pimps which left them in high debt.
The only support the sex workers received was from a few non-profit organisations that distributed food packages, masks and sanitisers. But, these women need money to send to their families who rely on this earning.
Maharastra government announced to provide financial assistance of ₹5,000 per month to female sex workers with identity cards issued by the National AIDS Control Organization from October to December 2020. The State government had said that an additional amount of Rs 2,500 will be given to the school-going children of sex workers. A total of 30,901 women and 6,451 children to benefit from the scheme worth Rs 51.18 crores, which cover all 32 districts in the State.
Maharashtra is the first and the only state in the country to provide help to sex workers. Kamathipura, an area in Mumbai is home to nearly 4,500- 5,000 sex workers, who have been jobless and penniless since the COVID pandemic lockdown. In early July 2020, the sex workers of this area had shared their hunger and violence stories of lockdown and had requested the state government to provide relief measures.
Sex workers are rarely offered inclusion in the social, political and economic spheres. GB Road, Delhi, is one of the red-light areas in the country with more than 100 brothels and over 2,000 sex workers. Many sex workers and their children, born into brothel are in terrible condition as they lack nutritious food and basic medical needs due to pandemic lockdown.
The government has turned a deaf ear towards sex workers' pain and sufferings. And, due to the financial breakdown, many sex workers are desperate and ready to continue their work despite the risks of Coronavirus infections.