Coronavirus in Mumbai: Mumbai's sex workers argue that they fought HIV scare; ask how COVID-19 is any different

Najma Nurbash, a sex worker from the Hanuman Tekdi, the red light area of Bhiwandi (the powerloom town on Mumbai's outskirts, nodally located at the intersection of two major highways connecting the country's financial capital to Western and Northern India) says she's desperate to start working despite risks due to the Covid-19 virus.

“How long can I live like this?” says the 24-year-old pointing out how the free foodgrains and household essentials distributed once in her area since the lockdown are running out. “Even before the lockdown began, work had reduced to a trickle as rumours led to a scare about the Corona pandemic and sex workers and brothel owners said that they'll not entertain clients. Though some were clandestinely still providing services initially, heavy police security after March 25th put a stop to that too."

She says, of the 350-plus sex workers in the neighbourhood, the brothel owners are better off. “Most sex workers here are indebted to them. A large chunk of their earnings goes in paying off debts often dating back to when they were first sold to the brothel owner. Of the Rs 250-500, most sex workers make per session the brothel owner gets to keep more than 50%. The ones who send money home scrimp on their food and health expenses to do so. Now since work has stopped due to the Corona pandemic the brothel owners say they're obliging us by letting us stay on.”

The Nizamabad, Telangana-native and her sister Zuleka were in for a rude shock when within two months of her mother's death, their father remarried in 2015. “I was only 19 and did not like the unwelcome attention I got from my stepmother's brother Razak who would come visiting often. When I complained, my father and stepmother beat me up and accused me instead. After I escaped a rape attempt by Razak a few months later, I fled to a distant uncle (mom's cousin)'s place in Karimnagar thinking his family would give me refuge and rescue Zuleka too.”

But her aunt resented my being there. She was also against her working saying it would shame her family. One of her uncle's family friends Rizwan Chacha (who she knew since her visits to her uncle's as a little kid) offered to bring her to Mumbai to work as a domestic help. “I liked the idea as I felt I could ask Zuleka to come live with me.”

Najma only made it to the Mumbai's outskirts, Mumbra in 2017. Here she faced slave-like torture as a domestic help. “I wouldn't be given food or even allowed to rest enough. The large family of 12 continuously had some chore or the other. Any delay meant being abused or even slapped.” An autorickshaw driver Nahid she had confided in while going back and forth to the grocer's told her of the brothel at Hanuman Tekdi and after a week of dithering, she fled.

“I have no sad backstory. I knew this was a brothel. I also knew the owner won't give me refuge for free and maybe the autorickshawala also made money, but after the initial awkwardness I made peace with this life.” With a large population of male migrant powerloom labourers (who live here by themselves without spouses often sharing spaces as small as a 10x12 feet room amongst 10-12 of them taking turns to sleep), truck drivers (who queue up outside Mumbai around Bhiwandi since they are allowed to only ply in non-peak hours to avoid traffic congestion) and the warehouse/godown (which are spread over 25 square km around Bhiwandi reaching Thane) security personnel business has always been good at Hanuman Tekdi.

“But on March 20th with fears and rumours of the Coronavirus many sex workers said they wanted a break to prevent infection and contagion.”She confides defying the ban since last week by lying about a gynaecological problem. “They think I'm going to the Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital. But I go to the truck depot where I offer services to the truck drivers in the back of their trucks.” When asked if she is scared of getting infected by Covid-19, she grins nervously.

“There are other fears... of going hungry, not making money... which are bigger. Sometimes these men are quite hefty and I'm scared because they can refuse to pay me or even sexually assault me. But I have to take my chances.”44 km away in Mumbai's redlight district of Kamathipura too this story repeats itself. “Given that this is a conglomeration of the several brothels and a community which is more or less mobilised, finding food aid and other doles has not been a problem after the initial fortnight,” says Malati Kaikadi a brothel owner who adds, “We also need to make a living. You think this dole-giving will last forever? But the police have been raining lathis on any man who walks into the street so we are stuck.

Work from home gone wrong

At a time when technology is enabling 'work-from-home' isn't there a way of making sex work also virtual? Kaikadi scoffs at the idea. “One of my girls had a regular client, a middle-aged builder, who would come all the way from Lokhandwala in a fancy car for her and even take her out. He suggested the idea to her mid-April that he wanted phone-sex and she was ready. I was sceptical wondering if he'd make good on the payment but when he paid upfront I foolishly agreed,” she recounts and laments the temptation.

“That scoundrel made her expose and pleasure herself for nearly half an hour and recorded it. In the beginning of May, one of his friends sent a clip to her. We later found out that it has been put up on several sites on the internet. I don't even understand all this fully but my girl has been distraught since then. Back in her village in Gorakhpur, no one knows she is into sex work. She fears the clip may be found by someone back in her village leading to a backlash against her family.”But why hasn't she made a complaint to the cops? After all, this is a violation and an offence under the Information Technology Act and several sections of the Indian Penal Code.

“Are you joking? She is a sex worker! Even if she was gang-raped she'd have a hard time even going to the police station to make a complaint. Can you imagine the laughs and barbs she'll have to endure if she even approaches the police?” So is she going to let the man go scot-free? “We can't do anything. But if he ever comes here I'll ensure that he goes home without his penis,” she says launching into a volley of choicest abuses.But it is not like localised sex workers working quietly out of flats in “respectable housing societies” have it any better. Ruchira Mandal who has been working out of a flat in the distant Mumbai suburb of Goregaon East, nearly 28 km away says her earnings have been seriously hit because of the vigilantism in her housing society.

“They've always had problems that I have too many visitors, too many late-hour visitors and have kept nosily asking me what I do for a living, or whether I eat non-vegetarian food, consume alcohol or smoke,” she says and adds, “Now the Corona pandemic has come as a Godsend excuse for these self-appointed upholders of morality and values. Like other residents, I was captive in the building compound for over a month. As others began going out after speaking to the secretary I also called him. He wanted to know where I was going, who I will meet and if I'll take responsibility if anyone on my floor got infected. He got back to asking me what I do for a living and where my office was.”

While she lied and got out she feels vulnerable offering sex to clients in their vehicle or empty offices. “Being in their place or car leaves me always feeling more vulnerable,” she says. “I was with this man who has been more or less decent till now when he came home. But the other day when he took me to a desolate spot in the Aarey Forests he was insisting that I let him have anal sex with me. He even thought nothing abusing me for 'acting fussy.' 'Randi hai toh itna nakhra kyun kar rahi hai?' he asked me,” she says her voice quivering with repugnance at the memory.

“My heart was in my mouth and I froze. I remember silently praying that he doesn't force himself on me. Thankfully he didn't. He paid me and dropped me back to my building gate.”She brushes off a question about whether she told him off. “He never bargains and pays me my price and even tips me extra. I don't think I want to piss off a regular generous client... not in these times when we all have to take risks.” But what if he asks her to do something non-consensual again, “I can only hope and pray he doesn't. Maybe the relaxations in the lockdown will see more clients showing up and things might improve.”

Being at the epicentre

While the Corona pandemic has opened up a whole pandora's box of problems for sex workers across India, in worst-hit Maharashtra they are worst off. While the first Covid-19 case in the state was confirmed on March 9th, 2020, it now accounts for over one-third of the total cases in India and nearly 40% of all deaths. Since the epicentre of this pandemic are the congested cities of Mumbai and Pune, alert levels in the state and these cities, in particular, is at an all-time high.

Meena Seshu, from the National Network of Sex Workers (NNSW) whose organisation SANGRAM - (Sampada Grameen Mahila Sanstha), based in Sangli, has been working in Maharashtra and North Karnataka for more than 30 years, mainly on the health and rights of sex workers and transgender population and their children, since the days when the HIV infection began spreading its tentacles in India - points out how authorities and policymakers who are looking at sex work as merely a “non-essential” activity need to wake up to the fact that for the sex workers’ community whose lives they sit in a decision on, sex work is their bread and butter.

“The lockdown placed on the block livelihoods of tens of thousands of sex-workers, their physical and mental well-being and that of those dependent on them. Sex work is defined as the provision of sexual services in cash or kind within a commercial context. Sex Workers from the SWASA network (Sex Workers and Allies South Asia, which works in India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh) across the region challenge the articulation that sex work is selling sex or selling bodies. Instead, they provide services directly to clients as independent workers or through third parties.”

Seshu says sex workers need to be placed on par with sections of society whose livelihood itself depends upon physical human contact. “Besides the medical profession, other professions dependent on physical contact, such as beauty parlours, massage parlours, hairdressing salons, etc. are all facing the brunt of the lockdown. Sex work is one such profession – a huge population that earns its livelihood from this work has been gravely affected and the looming uncertainty about when this could end has left them in a lurch.”According to her sex work will remain endangered for as long as a vaccine/drug for Covid-19 is not found. “India has hundreds of thousands of women who depend on sex work to support their families. And the number of men who regularly use their services is even larger.”

She should know. Her organisation SANGRAM's initiatives helped women sex workers in the Western Maharashtra town of Sangli, come together to form Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad (VAMP), a collective of sex workers which implements several schemes of the state government for the benefit of its members. VAMP has contributed a lion’s share in arresting the spread of HIV and its members, who once carried out sex work in slums or the dark alleys of the town, are now implementing government schemes as health workers. Sex workers from various states in India have mobilised to form the national level apex body NNSW.

The Covid-19 impact

When discussions on Covid-19 emerged, it was clear that this would badly hit the sex workers’ livelihoods. That such a pandemic would affect their physical as well as mental well-being, was certain Women in the profession began to talk. Would medical services be available to women who were already suffering from various conditions? Would HIV treatment, only available in government hospitals, continue to be available? The long, unplanned, ad-hocly announced lockdown has cruelly underlined the perils of those whose livelihoods are directly dependent on their day’s work. In the times of Corona, these have been further intensified.

The horrific humanitarian tragedy that was brought to visit upon the migrant workers has made for too many disturbing headlines and images to be forgotten anytime soon.Anticipating the looming danger, as soon as the lockdown was announced, though basics like groceries and other essentials like medicines were being provided on priority, the tension in the community in Sangli has been spiralling.

“The streets which would overflow with customers every evening, are now deserted like a graveyard. This was unprecedented. The women were familiar with day-long, state or nation-wide 'bandhs,' when by evening their neighbourhoods would bustle with activity again. By contrast, the current lockdown has dealt a severe blow to the women in this profession,” laments lawyer Aarthi Pai, currently director of the Centre for Advocacy on Stigma and Marginalisation (CASAM). “The curfew enforced during lockdown has meant a loss of customers and hence loss of livelihoods. And the struggle for survival begins anew. And some did not survive.”

She talks of a sex worker in the community who VAMP believed had died of a Covid-19 infection. “But that death was, in fact, a suicide committed with the fear of being infected. This 34-year old mother of a six-year old earned her livelihood through sex work. Left with no work and no customers she was driven to death by depression and succumbed to 90% burn injuries after setting herself ablaze,” recounts Pai, “Sangeeta, VAMP's fieldworker, had met her only a day before for a survey undertaken to estimate the extent of relief to be undertaken. Her name was on the list of beneficiaries. However, before relief could reach her she ended her life, fearing the impending doom of the virus.

Both her child and family were in their native village in Karnataka where last rites had to be performed,” says Pai. “Only one person accompanied the body in the hearse to the native village. There were restrictions on the number of persons at the funeral and hence all VAMP workers were deeply saddened that none could pay tribute despite belonging to such a large support system.”

This is not an isolated case points out Pai. “Many sex workers live with co-morbidities. This puts them at added risk to COVID-19. Many are also immunocompromised as they are living with HIV. Alcohol and drug dependency are also issues of concern. Mental health issues faced by sex workers is on the rise during this period. Many sex workers report depression and suicidal tendencies.”

Difference of approach

Anti-trafficking activist Dr Pravin Patkar, co-founder and co-director of Prerana, the organisation which works with the sex workers and their children says the long shadow over sex work is here to stay. “Since any interface involves oral to oral, oral to genital or genital to genital intimate contact and exchange of body fluids, unless a treatment is found in a hurry this could completely wipe out the profession.,” he says.

According to him the women in the profession will face increasing scrutiny and questions from the society and system. Both Pai and Seshu agree with this. “The compounded stigma that the pandemic brings in its wake is real. The clientele men will never open up about contact with a sex worker since its a social taboo. This means that all of the sex workers will be painted with one broad brush of suspicion. As it is there is so much prejudice against sex work and sex workers. Before long this will lead to targeting just like all Muslims were targeted in the wake of the Tablighi Jamat Markaz at Delhi's Nizamuddin.”

At the heart of it, all is the idea that sex work is not work, but an unhealthy, immoral lifestyle threatening to taint the “innocent.” Interestingly, the advent of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s saw governments make great efforts to target sex workers in the global and national responses to the HIV epidemic. Sex workers were targeted as vectors of the spread of HIV (in what could be mirrored in the coming days with Corona) and governments were determined to save the `bridge population' of men, using sex work interventions only as a means of protecting 'respectable' women from HIV.In many parts of the country, sex workers turned this around and made it an opportunity to mobilise attention to their health, safety and rights.

However, this picture is complicated by politically powerful faith-based constituencies, an anti-trafficking movement that denies the agency and rights of sex workers, and powerful funders. UN positions demonstrated some leadership on sex worker rights early in the epidemic but later appeared to acquiesce to prohibitionist views.

“Anti-trafficking activists and those working for sex workers' rights to livelihood have often bickered about the distinction between adult sex work and trafficked women forced into prostitution,” admits Dr Patkar who feels the Corona dynamic might give a fillip to this difference of approach and opinion. “Scores of women - victims of discriminatory hierarchies of caste, class, status, gender, disadvantaged by several layers of marginalisation from drought to gender-based violence and affected by personal tragedies like orphaning, domestic violence, sexual harassment at workplace - become easily available for sex trade that exposes them to fatal infections and condemns them to a life of indignity, stigma and discrimination. Projecting that as voluntary work chosen by the women adds insult to injury. That will need to be countered and we will have to work with the community to find the best way of rehabilitating them.”

Both Seshu and Pai disagree. According to them “anti-trafficking moralists” do not want to recognise sex workers who are in sex work of their own volition and in the process refute realities of thousands of India's sex workers. “For sex workers to access and enjoy rights, these massive misgivings and stereotypes about sex work need to be broken down,” they point out and add, “Corona or no Corona, sex workers do not necessarily need or want to be rescued, or treated as victims; they are not a threat to the greater “chaste” society, nor are they all walking cases of HIV then or Corona now.

Furthermore, they are capable of advocating for themselves and demanding their own rights. While they certainly face discrimination and hardships, people in sex work do not need futile pity.”Both sides of the intervention strategy divide however are in agreement that the government that has to take decisive steps to resolve this crisis caused by the lockdown without adequate planning for the most vulnerable. “Even as it starts relaxing the lockdown, the government must show sensitivity towards the sex workers’ community and design and implement policies and schemes for them as they will continue to be affected for a long time to come. Currently, none of the schemes declared by the Central government includes this particular section of society.

Relief measures can only be of help for a short-term,” says Seshu who adds, “Sex workers move frequently to escape identification by family or for better earning opportunities. They also hide their identity due to the stigma attached to their work. This makes it very difficult to provide relief work though government channels that ask for ration cards and other identity and address proof.” According to her “Women in sex work have to be acknowledged as 'workers' first and be accorded due status to accrue the necessary government assistance.”

Transforming social perception and accepting sex workers as an integral part of society could in fact, help enlist them as Covid warriors just like they joined the battle against HIV three decades ago.

(Some names have been changed on request)

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