By Atika Chaturvedi, a third year law student at National University of Study and Research in Law at Ranchi, India. 

As the world came to a standstill, the shock of the lockdown rippled through the various strata of society. The proliferation of COVID-19 in 2020 left the daily wage earners around the world scraping for money and struggling for survival. One such group was sex workers. Albeit, various South Asian governments formulated covid-relief packages, most of them left out sex workers out of the ambit of such packages. Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which affirms that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights, and Article 3, that guarantees everyone the right to life, liberty and security of person, were denied to the sex workers as they were not only curtailed from earning their livelihood, but were also rendered ineligible for the relief packages. They were stripped off of the chance of continuing to live with dignity, reducing them to absolute helplessness.

Loss of the source of income had severe repercussions for sex workers. The inability to earn and pay rendered many of them homeless, starving on the streets. The pandemic also marked a surge in the instances of domestic violence and abuse with regard to sex workers. Not only this, the social expulsion of sex workers, particularly during this time, also led to doctors and health workers responding inadequately to their need for treatment of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. Thus, appropriate steps taken by the governments with a view to include them in their social protection schemes would have obviated most, if not all, plights of the sex workers. 

Expounding upon the South-Asian context, the agony of sex workers was not paid much heed to by most of the countries. In India, sex work was not considered to be an “essential” activity during the lockdown. It was never given a social sanction, mostly because various aspects associated with it, like brothels and soliciting, were criminalized. On 26 March, 2020, the Union Government of India rolled out Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana which allocated Rs. 1.70 lakh crore to help the poor “fight the battle against coronavirus”. This entitled the women account holders under the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana to receive Rs. 500 per month for the next three month. However, very few sex workers could derive this benefit, as only a few hold Jan Dhan accounts and many, if not all, have no documents as the government denied their existence. Thus, when the state governments stipulated the different categories eligible for relief packages, sex workers were excluded.

In July 2020, Maharashtra became the first state to identify sex work as work and make it a special category eligible for assistance during the pandemic. However, this was not replicated by other states. The circular of the Department of Women and Child Development issued on 23 July 2020, which demanded that such women should be provided with free ration and essential services, was also not executed by all the states. 

However, India was not the only country that responded this way towards the anguish of sex workers. Similar to India’s predicament, a glaring difficulty that stood in the way of providing relief for various countries was the lack of documentation. As if losing their livelihood was not enough, sex workers’ condition worsened due to stigmatization and lack of recognition. In Bangladesh, eleven brothels were given food and financial support from government organizations. However, this did not suffice. In some locations, relief was given only to those who possessed national identity cards and unfortunately, not all sex workers have those. 

Similarly in Myanmar, the social protection services that were made available to people of low income, regarded sex workers as ineligible because they work in the informal economy. Furthermore, many of these sex workers were migrants and, thus, lacked the necessary documentation such as proof of residence, national identification, etcetera, which are essential for meeting the eligibility criteria of the government’s support services. 

The state of sex workers in Pakistan and Sri Lanka was no different. The stigmatization prevalent everywhere had shunned them out of having access to relief initiatives. Failing to form a part of the formal economy, Pakistan had eliminated them from relief agendas. The Sri Lankan government paid an allowance of Rs. 5000 to the daily wage earners. However, yet again, many of the sex workers did not receive it, because they did not have their names in the electoral register nor had permanent addresses. 

In conclusion, when the pandemic hit, one of the most vulnerable groups was left to fend for itself. The governments which ought to act as guardians, even for the marginalized, turned a blind eye towards them. Their predicament was aggravated by the various governments’ apathy towards them. Even an ounce of some aid could have proven efficacious in guarding them from domestic abuse and the other ordeals that the sex workers had to endure. However, their sufferings continue. Social acceptance towards their work, with the government leading the way and setting a precedent, could help in ameliorating their status. 

Photo Credit:

“covid-19” by Prachatai is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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