Sex workers’ incomes dry up as pandemic locks them in without customers in TN

As the country imposed stringent curfew to stop the spread of Covid-19, industries were quick to implement aggressive cost-cutting plans, dreading an immediate revenue collapse. But for one sections of society, the impact was  imminent and unavoidable: the sex workers.

One of the marginalised and vulnerable groups in Tamil Nadu, sex workers plunged into the depths of poverty and anxiety, unable to stem the sudden loss of income during the lockdown even as many others minimised the damage with timely measures.

With the non-essential economic activities crawling to a halt, the government announced emergency relief measures for millions of people in the informal sector. The women working in sex industry, however, remained outside their ambit and will never likely to receive any of it.

Malathi*, a sex worker in Madurai district, said she has no money left for food or sanitary towels. “My family is in deep trouble. If people don’t go out, we will not have any customers. I don’t have money to buy essentials,” she said.

“This is an unexpected turn of events. Yet we don’t want to defy the orders. We will maintain social distancing, and avoid any type of contact that may lead to Covid-19 spread. But we want money to survive. Sex workers have a family,” she said.

Prostitution may not be illegal in the country, but most of the supporting activities like soliciting customers or running brothels are punishable offences. As social distancing left people rooted to their homes, the largely homeless group has little choice but to remain on the street without any client in sight. As customers disappeared, their savings have dwindled.

Though the government rehabilitated the other destitute people on the street in Tamil Nadu, sheltering them in auditoriums and schools, sex workers were left out for the social stigma persisting.  Unlike other people, sex workers are not eligible for free rations from the government as a majority of them have no permanent residence or address.

A sex worker receives provisions from NGO in Kasimedu, Chennai

Shiva Kumar, the project manager of South India Aids Action Programme (SIAAP), said, “We have provided relief materials for 500 sex workers in cities across state. Our team of volunteers work day in, day out for them. Also, SIAAP is planning to transfer a sum of Rs 500 each to those residing in Theni, Madurai, Thiruvannamalai, Trichy, Dindigul.”

The lockdown has cost them their regular customers and many are now worried they would not able to regain the clients when the curfew is lifted. “Our regular clients seem like gone. We are not sure if they will come back. Running the business will be difficult without regulars,” said another worker from Madurai.

Despite wanted by many, sex workers are often discriminated for the job they do and are not allowed to be part of the usual social setup. “I have been constantly asked to vacate my houses by landlords. As we don’t have government identification cards, we are unable to obtain any government relief materials like PDS,” said Sudha, a sex worker in Dindigul district.

A married woman, Sudha went into prostitution to support her family of two after her husband died a few years ago. But she has not taken any customer after the country implemented strict measures to fight the pandemic. “I have no money left to feed my 16-year-old son. With the support of self help groups (SHG) and a few others, I now rent a small house,” she said.

Most sex workers in Tamil Nadu are homeless and living hand to mouth, earning only Rs 500 a day as basic wage. Shiva Kumar said that it’s a hard task to trace and identify the homeless people as they keep moving from one place to another. However, SIAAP has identified a good number of workers and given them relief materials and temporary abodes after the lockdown.

SIAAP has a team of counsellors headed by specialised trainers to take care of the mental health of the workers.  “Our team led by counsellors specialised in assisting sex workers has been doing a great job. They call at least 10 sex workers a day and help them recover from any sort of mental trauma,” he said.

The counsellors provided them with medicines by coordinating with volunteers and contacting medical shops.  The team has been covering nearly seven to eight districts in Tamil Nadu.

As sex involves contact, the element of vulnerability to Covid-19 in the job is high. Health experts said that the Covid-19 will be dangerous for those who already have any underlying medical conditions. Many workers are susceptible to the disease as social distancing does not work in sex.

According to the centre for disease control and prevention, older people and those with serious underlying medical conditions might be at a high risk of death due to Covid-19.  About 10% of sex workers in Tamil Nadu suffer from medical conditions such as HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Cover image: A sex worker receives provisions from NGO in Kasimedu, Chennai

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