Surviving the Pandemic: How Sex Workers are Coping

On a normal day, P. N. Shanthi would earn anywhere between Rs. 500 to 1000. Since the lock down in March, business for Shanthi has taken a hit just like it has for most of us. On most days she has managed with no food or money. The governments’ Rs. 1000 per month and rice bag scheme has not met her needs completely and her future post corona remains uncertain, just like it does for most of us. But then Shanthi comes from a stigmatized and marginalized section of the society. She is a sex worker.

Yes, very little thought or help has been rendered to this section of the society on how they are surviving the lockdown. A ‘business’ which involves 100 per cent physical contact is not a chance someone would take on in times of a pandemic like COVID 19. But for Shanthi, it was this business which helped her raise 3 kids, educate them and help them settle in life. Married off at 16, and a mother of 4 till she was 19, this was not the life she had imagined for herself. After being abandoned by her husband, she was sold off for a meager Rs. 10,000 and brought to Chennai from Kerala, Shanthi was forced into the flesh trade. With nowhere to go, no education or literacy and stuck in a new land, she did not have any opportunity to choose otherwise. This is the story of many such Shanthis all over the country. No one opts for this profession as a choice. Their situations and socio-economic condition leave them no choice.

 As she indulges in banter with me she opens up slowly about her life story. Today, she is living alone and manages to sustain. But this is not the case for tens of her other colleagues. They are in a worse situation. Some have parents or children to look after. Some have health issues like diabetes, kidney problems, etc. or an ailing family member and with no money for food itself, medication has become unaffordable and out of reach. She feels for them. She reminisces about the good samaritans (read social workers) in her life that helped put her children into a hostel and give them a good education. And also the help of organizations like ICWO who have reached out to their community over the last 2 decades and helped uplift and inform them of health hazards associated with their trade and given them the training to practice safe sex. They even helped in providing some rations for them during this pandemic.

A.J. Hariharan is the founding secretary of Indian Community Welfare Organisation (I.C.W.O). “Since 1994, ICWO has been doing a considerable amount of work in the field of STD / HIV / AIDS prevention. Yet there are several mountains to climb”, he says. This pandemic is going to last for a while and Hariharan is aware of the perils being faced by the sex worker community. But sadly, there is no scheme or alternate employment program for them and rehabilitating them has never been an easy task.

“We are daily wage workers but we are not recognized for any schemes by the government”, says Shanthi. “People don’t let us rent their houses. We face stigma and discrimination at every step from the society. I wish my peers and colleagues were housed together in one locality or housing society. Then we can watch out for each other and take care of each other, and share whatever little we have since no one from the outside will do this with us”.

I will leave it at that.

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Tasneem Akbari Kutubuddin has done her masters in Journalism & Communication and has worked as a senior journalist, editor and columnist for leading publications like The Logical Indian, Deccan Chronicle, Worldwide Media Corporation, The Bridge and Provoke. With Infano, she hopes to create more awareness about women’s health issues. Suffering with Fibromyalgia, a chronic pain condition, she has also been advocating for its awareness through media.

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