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Centring the margins: Sex workers battle for identity, entitlements and dignity in Covid-19

When peeking into the universe of sex work, it is imperative to locate the various identities sex workers live with, those that relate to societal hierarchies as well those related to their work, and that define their economic position. This understanding will enable us to understand their lived realities, especially in the current context of COVID.

An intersectional lens is required to understand as to why those who are in sex work are largely from oppressed caste groups, may have continued in this form of work for many generations, live socially stigmatised lives, and their identity as a ‘worker’ remains under a scanner. Multiple forms of marginalisations are embedded in multiple forms of discriminations.

Women sex workers, as well as members of the transgender community who are in sex work find themselves at the intersecting [1] identities of caste, class, gender, sexuality, trauma, age, health and access to digital interfaces as they navigate and negotiate their way through for basic entitlements such as identity proofs, access to ration, rent, antiretroviral treatment, reproductive health services, a safe work place, freedom from police excesses and their children’s education.

Caught in the trap of poverty, these sex workers eke out a subsistence by selling sexual services to alleviate themselves from abject economic distress and precarious living conditions[2]. Sex workers are also perceived to be in opposition to the hetero-patriarchal structure, where they’re tolerated on the fringes in seedy localities of metropolises. This paints a distorted picture, as sex workers aren’t recognised as workers of the informal economy and are additionally stigmatised as being morally unscrupulous. This doesn’t allow them toto integrate themselves into the mainstream society and access services as basic as social security schemes, thereby leaving them without any tools to develop resilience in the face of a humongous crisis caused by the COVID 19 pandemic. [3]

Through this article, we’re putting across the insights that were gathered by speaking to community workers, activists and other individuals working with sex workers in Delhi, Bangalore, Calcutta, Hyderabad and Sangli.[4] The objective was to understand the impact of the pandemic and the lockdown on women and transgender sex workers as well as how vulnerabilities were exacerbated for both. These were individuals who primarily engage in the physical act of sex work, as in the case of brothel-based, street-based and home-based sex workers. [5]We did not interview sex workers themselves, and the reasons were two-fold. First, the study was conducted as part of the formative stage of our project and we interviewed those who work closely with sex workers to understand key areas of concern as experienced by sex workers, before engaging sex workers themselves in the research. It could be potentially traumatic by inducing a re-living of difficult experiences.

Second, interviewing sex workers involves additional vulnerabilities for them, and has higher research risk than speaking to a service provider/social worker. Opening up directly about their life experiences is not a process they should undergo unless extremely relevant to the cause of scholarship. It requires a more in-depth research protocol developmentand requires approvalad by review boards, to ensure that we are engaging them for pertinent reasons. We aim to do this in the next phase of our study when we have identified key areas of inquiry that are based on current research to gather experiences broadly and that are contextual to COVID-19, and have adequate referral mechanisms in place, should the respondents require them. It also requires additional training for researchers.

The unimaginable economic blow of COVID exacerbated by inability to provide proof of identity

The Indian government implemented one of the harshest lockdowns[6] across the globe which firmly bolted the economy of sex work. It was reported that in Delhi this happened two weeks before the actual roll out of the first national lockdown. [7] In Calcutta, sex workers’ earnings were reportedly slashed and they were making one-third of their original earnings in the beginning of the lockdown.[8] They barely scraped through to meet expenditures such as rent, rations, children’s education, antiretroviral treatment and other health care expenses. Landlords asked them to vacate their homes on grounds of non-payment of rent. All these had a catastrophic impact on sex workers and put them in a fiscally vulnerable position, dependent on relief measures of government agencies and civil society organisations in order to receive the bare minimum.

Even these measures were inaccessible in many cases. Many street-based sex workers, who are usually migrants with their residence and work frequently changing, were not in possession of their identity documents such as aadhar cards, ration cards, etc.[9] For brothel-based sex workers too, their access to relief had be carefully navigated as disclosure of their work identities exposed them to multiple forms of discrimination. This assistance was usually provided by civil society organisations working with sex workers, but living with an identity that is deeply scrutinised by society also meant that sex workers had to experience unnecessary trauma and harassment.

It is important to note that sex workers’ family structure cannot be subsumed within the neat divisions of the hetero-patriarchal matrix – they are mostly women-headed households where sex workers are the sole earners and primary care-givers of their children. There is also a segment of sex workers who lead dual lives, where they live with their families without revealing the nature of their work. In the eventuality of COVID 19, they weren’t able to explain the loss in income and livelihoods to their families which led to them being at the receiving end of violence by their families, as reported by an activist working closely in relief distribution for sex workers.

Living with compromised health and dwindling medical supplies

There is a glaring absence of any structured intervention for the holistic wellbeing of sex workers in the country. The State is primarily interested in two major areas, that is prevention of HIV and unwanted pregnancies. The community of sex workers primarily receives governmental aid with respect to condom distribution and HIV testing. This indicates that sex workers are largely viewed as vectors of disease that need to be controlled to avoid moral panic in society[10].

In a prominent red-light district of Delhi, routine testing for COVID wasn’t taking place at any point from the first to the second wave. This must sound alarm bells as even though there was minimal work, sex workers rely on physical contact to earn a living and lack the privilege of social distancing as they live in cramped quarters.

The experience of transgender sex workers was alarming[11] as they were denied treatment for COVID and not provided any place to quarantine within hospitals or COVID centres. In certain cases, members from the trans community were not being tested for COVID and were being administered generic medicine irrespective of whether they had contracted the virus or not. On speaking with a transgender activist, they articulate that death of members of their community is imminent, either because of HIV or violence.[12] The general perception is that trans lives are not as worthy as the rest.

Compounded feelings of loneliness and revisiting trauma as sex workers struggle through the lockdown days

A less explored facet of the lives of sex workers is their mental health experiences during the pandemic. Anxiety germinating from being locked in and not being able to meet their clients was high. The insecurity and uncertainty of not knowing where the next meal is going to come from, or how they’re going to meet unavoidable expenses such as rent, was another reason for their anxiety, like for many other marginalised groups. The women experienced multiple forms of trauma because of leading irregular lives, not being able to engage in their work. For instance, for brothel-based sex workers, staying inside the brothel was not an issue, as was the case with many people during the lockdown, but what was indeed a struggle was not being able to live life as they have always known it. This escalated in some cases with women attempting to commit suicide as they had exhausted their means to deal with the situation. [13]

During the course of the lockdown, as the women weren’t engaged in their daily work, a barrage of past trauma, memories of violence and abuse also resurfaced in their consciousness. Their primary means of coping with a crisis was sex work, however they were not able to engage in work owing to the pandemic. An increased dependency on substances such as alcohol, tobacco and marijuana was reported. During the course of the pandemic, some women also began self-harming, by inflicting bruises and cuts on their wrists and thighs. [14]

Mental health has been at an all-time low for the community also because many of them have had to negotiate their space within families that turn abusive, often more during crises and economic hardships. Members of the trans community were abandoned by their families for not complying with accepted gender norms, in certain cases. With the pandemic-induced lockdown, people who identify as transgender, experienced heightened distress and intra-familial struggles. Violence, in such times, takes the form of both suicides and murders of trans bodies.

The pandemic has forced us to relook at our own perspectives around various identities, especially of those who are invisibilised as citizens and their labour rooted in intersectional stigma. Sex workers historically and currently are looked at as sexual objects, with their health, emotional and physical needs, compromised. The pandemic has been a wake-up call in more ways than one and has emphasised the urgent attention needed for some more than others.

The authors would like to thank and acknowledge the insights shared by all key informants who work closely with sex workers for their rights.

 

[1] Coaston, J. (2019, May 20). The intersectionality wars. Vox. Retrieved September 23, 2021, from https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/2019/5/20/18542843/intersectionality-conservatism-law-race-gender-discrimination.

[2] Ghosh, S. (2021, June 3). How sex workers are dealing with Covid-induced job Loss, LIVELIHOOD challenges. India Today. Retrieved September 23, 2021, from https://www.indiatoday.in/coronavirus-outbreak/story/how-sex-workers-are-dealing-with-covid-induced-job-loss-livelihood-challenges-1809925-2021-06-02

[3] Thangapandian, T. (2021, June 6). Recognising sex work as work. The Hindu. Retrieved September 23, 2021, from https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/recognising-sex-work-as-work/article34746344.ece

[4] The study was conducted as part of the formative stage of the Rebuild project and was designed to understand the layered vulnerabilities experienced and exacerbated by the pandemic on sex workers. Hence, we interviewed those who work closely with sex workers but not sex workers directly as interviewing sex workers involves additional vulnerabilities and has higher research risk than speaking to someone who is a service provider/social worker and requires development of a more rigorous protocol, planned to be done at a later stage in the project.

[5] This article is based on the ongoing work in the Rebuild project at the International Center for Research on Women (Asia). The project aims to aims to understand how COVID-19-related health and economic shocks, and the policy responses to them, interact with pre-existing gender and other social norms to impact livelihoods, experiences of GBV and SRHR outcomes for women who work in the urban informal economy. for more information, please visit https://www.icrw.org/research-programs/assessing-covid-policy-impact-on-informal-workers-in-kenya-uganda/

[6] COVID-19: Examining the impact of Lockdown in India after one year. Economic and Political Weekly. (2021, April 13). Retrieved September 23, 2021, from https://www.epw.in/engage/article/covid-19-examining-impact-lockdown-india-after-one

[7] As reported by a social worker who works closely with sex workers in the New Delhi region during the course of a Key Informant Interview.

[8] This has been articulated by an activist involved in the sex worker’s movement, based in Calcutta, during the course of a Key Informant Interview.

[9] Covid second WAVE: Sex workers get help from Good Samaritans. Hindustan Times. (2021, May 17). Retrieved September 23, 2021, from https://www.hindustantimes.com/cities/delhi-news/covid-second-wave-sex-workers-get-help-from-good-samaritans-101621243992051.html

[10] Bhattacharjya , M. (2021). Intimate city. Zubaan.

[11] Activists seek easier access to vaccines for transgenders, sex workers. Hindustan Times. (2021, June 8). Retrieved September 23, 2021, from https://www.hindustantimes.com/cities/others/activists-seek-easier-access-to-vaccines-for-transgenders-sex-workers-101623175606714.html

[12] As reported by a transgender activist from Hyderabad during the course of a Key Informant Interview.

[13] As reported during the course of a Key Informant Interview by a social activist in Sangli, Maharashtra.

[14] Mentioned during the course of a Key Informant Interview with a social worker in Delhi.

Cover Image: Pixabay

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Article written by:

Meher Suri is a Research Consultant with the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW). She is a policy professional, wielding a sharp curiosity to explore myriad avenues at the interface of the government, societies, and people power. Her areas of interest lie at the intersection of livelihoods, gender-based violence and sexual and reproductive health rights. Kuhika Seth is a development researcher with experience in qualitative and design research on intersectional issues around gender and, sexuality, such as intimate partner violence, sexual health and labour. She has led and contributed to a range of studies during her stints with IAVI, ICRW, Population Council and Sambodhi Research and Communications.

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