Prejudices of the pandemic: The story of the muted

Capstone COVID-19 Karnataka Pandemic Women

A tale of those who live in the shadows in the society

Laxmi* who is going to turn 60 soon has suffered massively in the entirety of her life. She was not more than 19 when her husband abandoned her in Bengaluru city with four children to look after. She had nowhere to go, and no one to help her. When she lost one of her daughters, the eldest one to poverty, she took matters into her own hands. She has been a street sex worker for more than three decades now. She has lived a life of hardships and sacrifices, her kids are still unaware of her profession. Her daughter is now married with a toddler and her sons are both in college. “I have seen terrible days but nothing stands worse than the lockdown days,” she said remembering.

When the government ordered a countrywide lockdown in March 2020, Laxmi was stuck inside her tiny one-bedroom house with negligible savings. With the depleting ration, she felt that her family may soon reach the verge of starvation. “There were no clients at all; it was all much unexpected for me. With house rent and paying my sons’ college fees, we always live in a hand- to-mouth-situation. We didn’t have much savings,” she said. Laxmi doesn’t have a ration card and has not applied for one. The documents required to apply for a ration card are income proof, an identity card, and an Aadhar card. Many fail to show proof of income due to societal stigma and hence their applications are rejected.

India is a country of diversity woven into the fabric of numerous shades of colours, all intimately connected. Acceptance is what the country offers to anyone and everyone. But a section of the society still lives in the shadows.  According to the Journal of Anthropological Survey of India, the prostitution industry has a turnover of 8 billion in the country. Around 24 million sex workers are living in India currently. Most of them do not have a ration card and with no work, during the pandemic, many starved and were forced out of their house.

Renu*, 45, and a mother of two joined sex work 15 years ago after her husband’s death. She had a similar story to tell. She lives in a small house with just one room. “It makes me scared just thinking of those times, I thought my children would die of hunger. The school gave us extra time to deposit the fees, so thankfully my children were not pulled out of school. We did not get help from the government.” she said.

While sex work is legal in India it is a taboo that society hides away. Running a brothel, soliciting and pimping is not legal. Most sex workers are forced into the profession due to poverty and sometimes by trafficking. As per the anthropological survey widowed and divorced women constitute 40 per cent of the total sex workers in Karnataka. It indicates that economic factors might be a strong reason for their involvement in the sex industry.

A tale of survival

Laxmi was desperate, she has mouths to feed. She resorted to selling vegetables and doing menial jobs. “I sold vegetables on the streets and even offered to work as house help but nothing really helped,” she said.

To meet the ends Laxmi, like many others, opted for loans from private individuals. The interest rates were as high as 18-20 per cent. Laxmi resorted to the same. She took a loan of Rs. 50,000 from a private individual to pay off her son’s college fees. “For us, there is no option for taking loans from banks. What source of income can I show? It was very urgent; I had to pay the rent and my son’s college fees. Even today I am paying off the interest and loan amount.” she informed.

Ratna*, 38, had a similar story to tell. A mother of three, she too faced a terrible financial slump during the lockdown. “The lockdown was a shock to me. My children are very young; they cannot help me financially. I am the sole breadwinner of the family. To afford a one-time meal was becoming difficult for me. I borrowed money from a man who lends money to people like us. I am still paying off the instalments.” She opted for this profession a decade ago when her husband abandoned her for having three daughters. Financial difficulties were great but the pandemic has struck her hard, she still is trying to find her feet, she added.

Many of them who could not afford to avail loans for themselves were forced out of their homes. With three kids to look after Chetna*, 38, was facing a desperate time during the pandemic. She could not pay the rent and was almost cast out of the house. “I tried to get a loan but could not, who will help people like us. Even the government neglects us.” This is when NGOs like Sadhana Mahila Sangha comes into the picture.

To take a personal loan, the documents that are needed are a PAN card for income proof, Identity proof (Adhar card, passport, or voter id), address proof and a six-month salary statement. Apart from that, a guarantor is also needed to avail of a loan. In most cases, sex workers cannot avail loans from banks in times of need, such as during the pandemic because they lack some of the other above documents.

A helping hand

Sadhana Mahila Sangha is a Bengaluru based non-profit organization that works for sex workers and their children. It acted as a hand of relief for many afflicted sex workers. Most of their field workers are sex workers who came out of the profession. But with the pandemic hitting many of the field workers who struggled to arrange two full meals for themselves and their dependents were forced to get back to work. They distributed dry rations like rice, wheat and pulses to them and gave them financial assistance to pay their rents.

“They gave me money to pay off my house’s rent and also provided ration to us,” told Chetna.

Laxmi informed that Sadhana Mahila Sangha helped her during the lockdown. “Sadhana Mahila Sangha mera ghar hai, (It is like a home to me). They helped me and the people of my community. They gave me ration when I needed it the most.” Laxmi hopes to become a member of the NGO in the future to serve the community, she further added.

Geeta M, the program manager of Sadhana Mahila Sangha informed, “The NGO works for the welfare of sex workers and their children. During the pandemic provided food ration kits and financial assistance to many sex workers. Other than that we also managed to get auto-rickshaw so that HIV positive sex workers can go to hospitals and get their antiretroviral therapy (ART).” They have been working for sex workers for twenty years now and have field workers in Bengaluru, Tumkuru and Belagavi.  They have various support groups to help the children of sex workers in their education and wellbeing. It was with the help of such an NGO that sex workers were able to survive the pandemic.

Is sex work legal?

Sex work is completely legal in India however, related activities such as pimping, running a brothel and soliciting are not.  The Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act 1956 states that anyone who is caught forcing any woman/girl to offer sex for money or any building owner rents knowingly that a building will be used as a brothel will be arrested under a criminal offence. The act also legalizes sex work done in private and makes public sex an illegal activity.

Advocate Anagha Kulkarni explaining the legality of sex work said, “There is no provision under the law which makes prostitution per se a criminal offence. What is punishable under the Act is sexual exploitation or abuse of a person for commercial purpose.”

She explained that the exception to this is where a person is carrying on prostitution in a public place as provided in Section 7 or when a person is found soliciting or seducing another person in view of Section 8, it becomes punishable.

She has taken a special interest in the topic and spoke about how legalising other forms of sex work can be helpful. “Legalization of prostitution in the State of Victoria, Australia, resulted in a massive expansion of the sex industry. Along with the legalization of prostitution, other forms of sexual exploitation, such as tabletop dancing, bondage and discipline centres, peep shows, phone sex, and pornography, have all developed in much more profitable ways. Prostitution has become an integral part of the tourism and casino boom in Victoria with government-sponsored casinos authorizing the redeeming of casino chips at local brothels.”

Government aids

What might seem like a relief, the state government as per a report by the Hindustan Times during the second wave of the covid 19 pandemic asked the center to distribute free food to sex workers immediately, but this aid did not reach many. “Even if the government did provide free food, we did not receive it. Tell me is giving free food enough, there are a lot of things like rent, school fees, medical bills that need to be paid,” said Laxmi, a sex worker.

Similarly, the Supreme Court orders all states and UTs to immediately start issuing ration cards to sex workers. The SC also allowed the issuance of ration cards without address proofs as per a TOI report. But even today there are no ration cards for them. 

Under the Chetana scheme in Karnataka, sex workers can avail of up to a sum of Rs 50,000 as a loan to help them find self-employment and lead a dignified life. While many sex workers know this scheme, most feel that this amount is not enough for starting a new life. Geeta M, the programme manager of Sadhana Mahila Sangha said, “In a city like Bengaluru, Rs 50,000 is really not enough. It is a huge challenge for a sex worker to come out of sex work and find some other work. Most of them are uneducated and have no skills to find work.”

Another scheme for the sex workers suffering from AIDS is the National AIDS Control Programme (NACP). In Karnataka under the programme, 92,175 female sex workers get aid like medicines, regular check-ups and counselling. Ullas Ramgayya, Deputy Director of Targeted Intervention, NACP informed, “The number of sex workers with AIDS might be high, but tracking them is difficult. The problem is that most of the sex workers are hesitant to come and most of their families do not know that they have AIDS; it is a taboo in society. When a child cries that’s when the mother comes and caresses it right? If we know they have a problem we will help them. Who said no one cares, we have policies in place to help them out. There are separate funds for them and there was no shortage during the pandemic.”

Social stigma

Sex in India has been a taboo topic for a very long time which has led to a stigma around the lives of sex workers and prostitutes in India. This dates back to the British era when in 1923 the British criminalised sex work under the Prostitution Prevention Act. They had a Victorian sense of virtue that condones sex work in exchange for money as something immoral and sinful. 

The stigma around sex work and sex workers is a direct result of the patriarchal setup of the society in India, experts believe. This stigma has forced them to live in hiding and neglect

The question of why sex work is such a stigmatised profession comes from the deeply rooted patriarchy in our society. Meena Ranpise, Assistant professor of sociology at Pune University, said, “Unfortunately we like in a patriarchal setup which gives utmost importance to concepts like virginity and chastity of a woman. When we look at the setup of our society closely, a woman has been bound in one way or the other. Making her wear a mangal sutra after marriage is a symbolic way of bounding her. Women should be chaste and docile, they should play a subordinate role in society which is the most important thing. This comes not only from men, but women too, unknowingly or knowingly, subdue women. The moment she tries to break free of those constraints she becomes impure and the society rejects her.”

A stigma around sex as a topic is also a reason why sex work is such a taboo.

“The moment the topic of sex comes up, the society becomes uncomfortable. Even today when we have progressed so much there are people, and families where talking about sex is off-limits. In a society where you cannot talk about something as natural as sex, how can you expect someone to talk about sex work as a profession.”

Meena Ranpise, Sociologist

“The formal legal system in India is a legacy of the British legal system, Specific examples are the anti-beggary laws that criminalise poverty, the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act that criminalises sex work. Puranas have laid down that women who shared her couch with two men were called Kulata, with three was a Darshini, with four was Pungaschalea and with five was called vaishya. The women who gave themselves to people more than five in number were known as maha vaishya but history indicates that prostitution was an accepted profession in India, and the society treated them with a certain amount of consideration as the custodian of the fine arts. This changed with acts like the Prostitution prevention act and Immoral Traffic Prevention Act ” Advocated Kulkarni explained.

A journey towards a better future

Conversations around sex work and sex workers will help to remove the deeply rooted stigma around the profession. Gender expert and activist Paati P suggests that starting a conversation around the topic of sex and sex work can only help de-stigmatise the whole issue. “We as a society don’t talk about it at all. Sex workers are not able to get the help they receive from the government because they are afraid. They fear society’s judgment. Women in sex work don’t have access to medicines or contraceptives but they won’t come out and talk about it too. The reason is society’s fear.”

She believes in conquering this issue by using art. “Art, fiction, theatre can generate conversations around these topics. Movies like Gangubai Kathiawadi help people to see what issues sex workers face. People might go into the cinema thinking they will watch a movie and get entertained but what they will get along with that is a social message. The reason why I say that art has this power is because of its ability to reach the masses. The content is served on a plate; society just needs to consume it.”

Experts believe that fiction, especially movies can help in generating conversations around sex workers due to their mass reach

Geetanjali Babbar the founder and CEO of Kat Katha an NGO that works for the liberation of sex workers by giving them skill-based training like swinging, stitching and embroidering. Working with sex workers for so long she understood how deeply rooted the problem is. She said, “The whole idea that a woman’s body can be bought and sold. The notion that a man can control a woman’s body is very deeply rooted in society. Players like caste, patriarchy, gender norms and female foeticide come into the picture. The crux of the matter is the minute you start monetising on a woman’s sexuality sex trade and trafficking start to happen even more.”

There are government aids in place to help the sex workers but the question of is that helps enough and does it contributes to removing the stigma in any way still remains in a fog. Babbar believes that the kind of trauma a sex worker faces in their lifetime is huge. Therefore it is important to recognize that they cannot be treated like regular citizens as far as government aids are concerned.

She said, “Assuming that they will receive the aids provided is not enough. The government needs to acknowledge that these sections require targeted interventions. There is a need to treat them like any other human being but also acknowledge that these people have gone through life-altering emotional, physical and psychologically damaging experiences in their lives. The government needs to go beyond HIV and distributing condoms.”  She also added that sensitising all government employees who work in these areas is also very essential so that the sex workers can freely approach them. 

Paati P expressed some similar views saying, “The government needs to employ sex workers to reach sex workers. Imagine how easy it would be to reach them, they will have empathy towards them too which is always lacking in such cases. It will also help the government understand the problems that the sex workers face better and make policies accordingly.”

There is a section of our society that still suffers silently. Speaking to several sex workers, there was one thing that they desperately needed. It was not ration or shelter but a life of dignity and respect. “Who will help people like us” Ratna, a sex worker said. The idea that they are somehow on a lower pedestal than others is something that is instilled so deeply in society that it has convinced sex workers too that they indeed are on a lower pedestal.  As sociologist Ranpise said. “If the society does not change its mindset nothing good can ever come out of all the campaigns and stuff we do. Change comes from within. The day we start looking at sex workers as people who are in a profession, working hard to make a living out of it like a doctor or engineer, will be the day things will start getting better for them.”


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