COVID-19 impact: Nearly 87% sex workers in Bhiwandi keen to take alternative jobs

After losing their source of livelihood in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, nearly 87 percent sex workers in Bhiwandi are keen to choose some other jobs to earn their livelihood.

A non-government organisation (NGO) working among the sex workers in the city disclosed after a survey that they are exploring other jobs to earn their livelihood. The survey was conducted among the sex workers in Bhiwandi. The volunteers have started giving training to these women in order to enable them to select alternative jobs like stitching, packaging and other small scale business for their livelihood.

The survey has been done by Thane-based NGO Shri Sai Seva Sanstha, which is working for the welfare of over 500 sex workers prominently in Bhiwandi's red light area for the last two years.

"We conduct workshops and small camps in their locality in Bhiwandi with an aim to educate them about the alternative sources of income by quitting their current field. However, the survey has highlighted that the pandemic outbreak has forced majority of the sex workers to think about alternate jobs for to earn their livelihood," said Dr Swati Singh, founder of Sai Seva Sanstha.

After the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak, mainstream prostitution came to a halt due to the fear of transmission of the disease. However, seven months into the crisis, the sex workers feared that they would be further pushed into debt and poverty as there is no sign of the end of the pandemic. This thought prompted them to explore alternate jobs.

"During the initial period of the pandemic-induced lockdown, we have provided them with the necessary things for these women, like food and clothes for a few months. But after a certain period, these women requested us to help them provide alternate jobs instead of donations. Hence, 87 percent sex workers in Bhiwandi found out alternative jobs like stitching, packaging incense sticks, selling milk, rolling pads and other small-scale business run by mahila bachat gats(women’s group), formed among them," said Singh.

She further said that Bhiwandi is one of Asia's largest warehouse hubs. Most of the major multinational companies and e-commerce giants have their warehouses in Bhiwandi. As the town is growing, the red-light area of Hanuman Tekdi is also growing and women from other cities as well as other countries are lured here with jobs and then forced into prostitution.

"The Hanuman Tekdi area consists of over 500 sex workers, while a few of them are taking care of kids. Their children are being provided with day care facility and basic education by the NGO and there are around 15-20 volunteers, who are the sex workers and are taking care of their area (for welfare of sex workers) in coordination with the NGO,” said Singh.

"Another positive side that was found in the survey is that four sex workers from this area quit their field and took up jobs like stiching, selling milk, working as a volunteer in administration work and other activities of the NGO. Hence, we hope an increase in the percentage of such women in future," added Singh, who is the doctor by profession and mother of two.

Out of the total number of sex workers in Bhiwandi, only 4 percent is from Maharashtra. Others are predominantly from the southern part of the country, especially from Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Tamil Nadu besides Kolkata. This highlights the rampant sexual exploitation of migrants who cross the borders looking for earning a livelihood, says the survey report.

The survey also highlights, that among total number of sex workers located in Bhiwandi, 56 percent are foreign nationals, the study says. Majority of women are from Bangladesh accounting to 46 percent of the total sex workers and the rest 10 percent are from Nepal. These women were either trafficked across the borders or migrated for work and eventually fell in the flesh trade trap.

“I was initiated into sex trade at a very young age as my family was struggling for survival. I lost out on the opportunity to be educated. I am thankful to Shree Sai Seva Sanstha for helping me develop skillsets needed for getting employed and I look forward to start a new chapter in my life,” says Rosie (name changed), a sex worker from Bhiwandi.

The NGO is also educating them to understand the importance of education, especially for their children.

"Following the survey report, we have listed out a few recommendations for the welfare of these women. Two major recommendations are - women (sex workers) who want to start their own venture should be provided with access to easy credit and collateral-free microfinance opportunities. For the victims of human trafficking for sexual exploitation, a special victim relief fund should be created to help them pay-off their debts and move out of a life of exploitation and pain," said Singh.

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