Coronavirus and the Sufferings of India’s Sex Workers

Social Commentary

Coronavirus and the Sufferings of India’s Sex Workers

Illustration: Arati Gujar

The coronavirus pandemic has hit some sections of the society harder than others. A new research indicates that more than 90 per cent of commercial sex workers are facing the prospect of permanent debt bondage by the end of this year.

The research conducted by Dr Beulah Shekhar at Karunya Institute of Technology Sciences (KITS) in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, examines the financial exploitation the community faces in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. The study was conducted in the red light areas of Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, Pune, and Nagpur.

The pandemic has dried up earnings for the community and majority of sex workers were forced to rely on loans from brothel owners and pimps. With earning prospects not improving, sex workers could end up trapped in debt and sexual slavery for the rest of their lives.

“I started looking into the plight of sex workers as the community suffered a severe setback this pandemic. That’s when I stumbled upon the problem of debt bondage they were grappling with. Further research into this issue revealed great concerns. A majority of sex workers are victims of trafficking, they were forced into prostitution, mostly at a very young age in their life. Their sufferings seem to have no end as now the debt bondage further victimises them,” explains Shekhar.

Formal sources of credit aren’t accesible to sex workers since most of them are deprived of bank accounts or personal identity proofs. Hence, they have to borrow from informal sources like brothel operators, opening them up to further harassment. In some red light areas, the interest rates on loans have increased from 12 per cent to 25 per cent per month. The report states that over 95 per cent sex workers from the country willing to leave sex trade were unable to do so due to the debt bondage. The average debt incurred by the end of 2020 will be ₹6,95,982.

If the situation doesn’t improve by March 2021, sex workers might force their daughters too into sex work, for repayment. “We are so desperate to earn money and pay our dues. Some of us are engaging with customers in this coronavirus time also. We know it’s risky… but what to do, we have to pay rent, medical bills and other expenses. On top, we have to repay the existing debts anyhow,” said a sex worker from Mumbai.

Skehkar demands that urgent action needs to be taken on this issue. “State and Central governments must establish a fully functioning rehabilitation centre that has dedicated units for preparation, channelling, monitoring, and evaluation stage programmes to help sex workers who want to move out, start a fresh chapter in their lives,” he states.

The government must ensure that sex workers are not irreversibly left behind due to the pandemic. It is a human cost that will have to be paid by not only sex workers engaged in the profession today, but also their children.