In mid May, over one thousand sex-workers living on GB road, a sex-work area in Delhi, sought aid from social activists providing food for those deprived of their livelihood during the COVID-19 crisis. Several sex workers told me they are worried about their survival as they expect the pandemic to impact their incomes for months to come.
“We did not get any help from the government, some social workers provided us food,” a sex worker and a resident of GB road told me on the condition of anonymity. She added that the ration would last them ten days. “We do not have any money left and are running out of fuel to cook now.” She continued, “I have been living here for 20 years. Most people living here do not have ration cards, but have an Aadhar card. No one from the government or any elected representative has enquired about our plight.” Another sex worker, who is also a resident of GB road, told me, “We have no source of income now. The government should provide us financial aid.” Social activists told me that several sex workers were concerned about the nutrition and education of their children.
The lack of government support has been compounded by the social discrimination faced by the sex workers, which has restricted access to relief aid. “Most people who are providing food for the needy do not come forward to help sex workers because of the stigma associated with their work,” Iqbal Ahmed, a Delhi-based social activist told me. “Many were unwilling to help with collecting and distributing ration kits when they heard the name GB road. Sometimes, even the donations collected in their name do not reach them. A lot of work that some NGOs claim to do for sex workers happens just on paper.”
Two organisations that represent sex workers—the All India Network of Sex Workers and the National Network of Sex Workers—have written to central government bodies and sought inclusion in social-security measures. The AINWS is a collective of at least five lakh sex workers across the country, while NNSW is a network of sex workers’ organisations across south India, Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Gujarat.
On 15 April, Kusum, the president of AINWS, wrote to director general of the National Aids Control Organisation and highlighted the issues faced by sex workers. NACO, which works under the ministry of health and family welfare, leads HIV/AIDS control programmes in the country. It also provides health screening and HIV medication, under a targeted intervention programme, for high-risk populations identified by NACO such as “female sex workers” and “male having sex with male.”