As Mumbai, the financial capital has begun unlocking phase wise, the residents and business owners of Kamathipura, the city's red-light area, have started a 'poster campaign' banning entry to the 'customers' visiting sex workers.
As part of the campaign, the residents have pasted over 250 posters across the streets, brothels and Ganesh Pandals of Kamathipura and Faulkland road, cautioning people about the spread of COVID-19 and discouraging sex buyers from entering the place.
Last month, over 1,000 residents and business owners from Kamathipura wrote to the Chief Minister Uddhav Thackrey, Member of the Parliament (MP) of Mumbai South Arvind Sawant, and BrihanMumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) Commissioner Iqbal Singh Chahal, requesting a strict vigilance to keep sex buyers away from entering the locality.
Despite the city’s upward trajectory of COVID-19 cases, Kamathipura has managed to keep its cases within the range of a few hundreds. Community efforts have played a significant role in keeping the area under the green zone. However, as soon as the city started unlocking, there has been a drastic increase in number of sex buyers frequenting the area and sex workers are also seen soliciting on the streets, alleged the residents.
"Customers come to Kamathipura and Faulkland road area from all over Mumbai. They could be potential carriers of coronavirus. Locals fear that it is just a matter of time before the sex workers get infected and the virus starts spreading uncontrollably in the area, turning it into a hotspot," said a resident.
Sameer Sable, member of Raj Mudra Pratishthan and Kamathipura Vyapari and Rehavasi Ekta committee, stated, “Mask, gloves, hand sanitisers and condoms cannot protect customers or commercial sex workers from getting infected as maintaining social distance in sex trade is a laughable fact. It is a dark reality. Men visiting these brothels can be the potential virus carriers. Thus, the infection once spread in the red-light area, which is a cluster/ congested area, can easily spread around the community."
There are 6,57,800 sex workers in India, according to a 2016 UNAIDS study. The lockdown and social distancing measures had pushed the sex workers to the edge. Lockdown rules being relaxed in many parts of the country was a ray of hope to sex workers.
Rukesh Girolla, a social activist and representative of Sainath Mitra Mandal stated, “Schools, colleges and shops have remained shut to contain the spread of the virus. I am shocked that sex buyers are being allowed to freely visit red-light areas. Has buying sex become an essential activity?” Residents are hopeful that the civic and police authorities will set up strict vigilance to restrict entry to customers in Kamathipura until the end of the pandemic.
The lockdown had put a stop to the daily income of these women, leaving them struggling for food and shelter and earning a daily living for themselves and their children. "The so-called poster initiative by the residents and business owners of the area is discriminatory. It is very easy to discriminate against the marginalised. What scientific backing do these residents have. In so many years, they have never come to the aid of the sex workers, then why now?" said Priti Patkar, co-founder of Prerna, that works in the red-light areas of Mumbai, to protect children vulnerable to commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking.