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Representational Image
PTI

Findings of a new research indicate that more than 90 per cent of commercial sex workers in three states are facing the prospect of permanent debt bondage by the end of this year.

The research, conducted by Dr. Beulah Shekhar, Emeritus Professor of Criminology at Karunya Institute of Technology Sciences (KITS) in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, examines the financial exploitation the community faces in the aftermath of Covid-19 pandemic.

The study was conducted in the red light areas of Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, Pune and Nagpur. Of the total 7,76,237 sex workers in India, over 1,29,000 are from Maharashtra, Delhi and West Bengal, according to National Aids Control Organisation.

With the Covid-19 pandemic putting the brakes on mainstream prostitution and drying up their daily earnings, majority of sex workers were forced to rely on loans from brothel owners, pimps and others. These debts piled up and with no means to repay them in the near future, sex workers could end up trapped in the shackles of debt bondage 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 after wrapping up the research, the report of which is expected to be published in the coming months.

In India, 95 per cent of the trafficked victims are forced into prostitution, shows the latest data by National Crime Records Bureau. However, these numbers are estimated to be just a fraction of the actual figures as sex traffickers work in a clandestine way.

Since the commercial sex workers living in red light areas are deprived of bank accounts or personal identity proofs, they can`t access formal sources of credit. They had to borrow from informal sources like pimps and brothel operators, subjecting themselves to further harassment. Over 95 per cent sex workers from the country willing to leave sex trade were unable to do so due to the debt bondage, says the study. The average debt incurred by the end of 2020 will be Rs 6,95,982.

In the new normal if situations do not improve by March 2021, this amount can become an intergenerational bondage where sex workers might force their daughters too in sex work for repayment. The pimps and brothel managers use the debts as a coercive binding factor to intimidate and control them further.

"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. Given a chance, we will all move out and pursue other jobs," says Sharmila (name changed), a sex worker from Mumbai.

According to the study, the interest rate on the loans taken is steeply rising. In some red light areas, average interest rates are reported to have been increased from 12 per cent to 25 per cent per month translating to about 144 per cent to 300 per cent annually.

The women were already reeling under debt even before the pandemic and this increasing interest rates will further wreak havoc in their lives, state the findings of the research.

"Unless actions are taken to create a plan for alternative livelihoods for these women, the present movement of thousands of commercial sex workers into a state of indefinite bonded labour situation will become the single largest movement of human beings pushed into debt bondage and irreversible slavery in a span of few months," says Shekhar.

Setting them on the path of alternative livelihood is the way forward, said Shekhar. Desperate to escape from the shackles of sex trade, sex workers are eager to opt out and make a fresh start. To break the chain of debt bondage, Shekhar suggests providing similar alternative livelihood plans that offer identity such as government-authorized personal ID proofs and financial security as the way forward.

"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."

"Though red-light areas are resuming work, it will not improve the economic conditions for sex workers as the projected reduction in customer visits will move them further into a lifelong debt trap," Shekhar adds.

(To download our E-paper please click here. The publishers permit sharing of the paper's PDF on WhatsApp and other social media platforms.)

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