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Untold Stories from Lockdown - Sex Workers in the Red-Light Districts of India

By Tasha Ratti

Illustration by Mana Rose Merikhy

Every day, a new notification. Another buzz, another ping – another news report about the virus. What I can’t help but notice is how very few of these news reports ever extend beyond the borders of the western world. Consider, for a brief moment, when the last time was that your daily news notification wasn’t an article about Europe, about America, about ‘us’? Coronavirus is affecting individuals and communities all around the globe – where are their stories? As a consequence of the west’s self-absorption, important issues are being overlooked. Welcome to Untold Stories from Lockdown. The aim of this short series is to explore the stories which, despite not headlining the mainstream media, need telling nonetheless. This first article examines the impact of Covid-19 on a marginalised group outside our borders – sex workers in the red-light districts of India.

Don’t be fooled, whispered mum as she locked eyes with mine We may not see it Or hear it That doesn’t mean all is fine

The red-light districts of India – Kolkata, Gwalior, Kamathipura, Mumbai, Bihar, and Delhi – are home to an estimated 657,800 sex workers. ‘Estimated’ sex workers constitute a very hidden population in India. Some studies estimate the numbers to be over 3 million. The Indian government have never conducted a comprehensive demographic survey to determine the exact number of sex workers in the country, therefore, the figures remain uncertain. What is certain, however, is that sex workers in India are struggling to survive lockdown.

Since a nationwide lockdown was imposed in India on 24th March to contain the spread of Coronavirus, sex workers have been unable to apply for government assistance or financial support. India’s poorest can claim monthly cash subsidies and collect free food rations under an £18 billion relief scheme announced by the prime minister, Narendra Modi. Sex workers, however, have been excluded from this relief scheme.

Whist the Indian government have made arrangements to assist other labourers through lockdown, nothing has been done to help sex workers. Despite criticism from charities and organisations on their inaction, the Indian government have not issued an economic package to help sex workers survive this emergency. The physical constraints of lockdown, coupled with the fact that millions of citizens across India have lost their job, means that a sex worker’s clientele has disappeared overnight. Hundreds of thousands of sex workers in cities across India are suddenly without an income. Subsequent to exclusion from governmental Covid-19 relief, it’s been reported that sex workers in India are starving and struggling to feed their families. During a time of immense crisis, the Indian government have abandoned them.

The omission of sex workers from Covid-19 relief is a product of the informal and incriminating nature of sex work as an occupation in India. Whilst sex work is not illegal in India, per se, almost every aspect relating to sex work is illegal e.g. operating brothels and pimping. Therefore, although being a sex worker is not against the law, the occupation is not legally recognised by the Indian government and the industry remains extremely unregulated. Extensive disapproving moral attitudes about sex work exists throughout the country, and as a result, sex workers face immense stigma, discrimination, and prejudice. Sex workers make up a group of ‘invisible citizens’ in India. In the Indian 2001 census, sex workers were merged with housewives, beggars, and criminals. In the next national census of 2011, although sex workers were no longer classified as beggars, they were not given any independent classification and were instead simply classified as ‘others’. As a sex worker in India, your rights to civil liberties, basic entitlements and justice are, to put it simply, non-existent. As a result of Covid-19, sex workers have plunged from an invisible group of women, to one of the most marginalised and vulnerable group of workers across the country.

A statement highlighting the hardship and discrimination faced by sex workers during Covid-19 was issued by UNAIDS and The Global Network of Sex Work Projects. They stated that in countries where sex work is criminalised, there have been numerous cases reported about the exclusion of sex workers from Covid-19 emergency protection schemes. They called on these countries to take immediate, critical action, asking them to ensure that sex workers were able to access the social protection and income support that was available to other workers. The Indian government, however, have failed to respond or take action.

The situation for sex workers in India can be compared to that of New Zealand. In New Zealand, sex workers can apply for emergency wage subsidies. These subsidies are available to all workers across New Zealand whose earnings have fallen by at least 30% as a result of Coronavirus. “The form only took about three minutes to fill out, and I didn’t need to disclose that I was a sex worker… only that I am self-employed.” Just two days later, a lump sum amounting to 12 weeks of lost earnings was in this woman’s bank account. In New Zealand, sex workers have spent decades working with the government. In 2003 legislation fully decriminalising sex work was introduced in New Zealand, with the intention that sex workers would not be forced into the industry as a result of financial pressures and could leave the industry at any time. What’s unique about New Zealand’s model is that it was developed with enormous input and guidance from sex workers and feminists. The government’s approach and policies have proved life saving for sex workers during Covid-19. Where Coronavirus has exposed deep-rooted inequalities and further marginalised sex workers in India, New Zealand has helped sex workers secure financial stability and safety.

Different countries worldwide adopt very diverse approaches to regulate sex work. No universal, decisive agreement has been reached as to which strategy is best, as very little conclusive evidence currently exists. The international debate surrounding sex work is broadly divided into two distinct feminist groups. Neo-regulationists and liberals maintain that sex work is a rightful and voluntary form of labour which should be legalised or decriminalised. Neo-abolitionists, however, argue that sex work equates to absence of choice. They defend the opinion that the normalisation of sex work under a neoliberal system, where human bodies are utilised as a marketplace, encourages pimps to populate brothels to meet demand which in turn increases the prevalence of sex-trafficking. In what is undoubtedly a complex and intricate debate, there are a couple of components essential to consider in regard to sex work specifically in India.

Firstly, the current legal system in India surrounding sex work is somewhat flawed when you do a little bit of research. The Immoral Traffic (prevention) Act (ITPA) was introduced in India in 1956, with the intention to criminalise the sector and suppress trafficking. Brothel-keeping and solicitation are illegal under the ITPA. Being a sex worker, however, remains lawful. Despite the ITPA being introduced in an attempt to better the lives of women and girls and to abolish sex-trafficking, a report found that of the persons arrested under the act every year, approximately 90% were female sex workers – not pimps, brothel-owners, or clients.

In addition to a defective legal system, for many in India, entering sex work relates to economic necessity. Alongside the more obvious issues of trafficking, pimping and manipulation, studies demonstrate that the rationale for participating in sex work in India can stem from a backdrop of extremely limited economic alternatives. A study which investigated the reasons why females opt to undertake sex work in India found that many women often leave jobs in the informal sector and enter sex work in the hope of a more sustainable income and with the prospect of better providing for their family. Women who work jobs in the informal sector experience low pay, appalling working conditions, minimal opportunity for advancement, as well as irregular work in jobs that are seasonal. For woman working these jobs, their median earnings are 500-1000 rupees per month (£5.31-£10.61). In contrast, sex workers in India have a median monthly income estimated at 3000-5000 rupees (£31.84-£53.07). When you compare sex work to jobs in the informal sector which don’t offer security or sufficient income, it becomes evident why women in India may seek sex work as an alternative occupation.

Coupled with poverty, another predominant factor which compels females to enter sex work in India is limited education. A recent report in 2020 stated that nearly 40% of adolescent girls in the age group of 15-18 years in India were not attending school, while 30% of girls from the poorest families have never set foot in a classroom. Amongst females in India, the illiterate population is a staggering 162,780,856 women (yes, you read that right – 162 million). With a limited education, the options available to a woman wanting to leave the informal sector for a better quality of life are vastly reduced: one of the only viable options may be sex work.

These above issues emphasise that reducing the debate regarding sex work into females either freely engaging in sex work or being forced into sex work is both inaccurate and insufficient. It is a too simplistic binary approach which overlooks socio-economic background, education, literacy, as well as caste and religion.

No matter your position regarding the ethics and politics of sex work, it cannot be denied that all sex workers, all around the world, deserve government assistance, protection, and income support during Covid-19. It’s unjust and inexcusable that sex workers in India are not able to qualify for government Covid-19 relief.

Fortunately, there are charities and non-governmental organisations across India who are compensating for the government’s inaction. One of these charities is Apne App. Apne App are an Indian grassroot charity who advocate for sex workers and campaign against sex trafficking. They are providing the much-needed aid to women across the red-light districts of Kolkata, Delhi, and Bihar during Covid-19 by distributing meals to women and their families, as well as hygiene packs of masks, soap, basic medicine, and sanitary pads. The work they are doing is undoubtedly vital for the thousands of sex workers who have been deserted by the Indian government. The charity has issued an urgent appeal for donations. However, they have only reached £20,806 of their £809,581 goal. This is a mere 2% of the donations they need to help the sex workers they are supporting survive lockdown.

If you’re able to make a donation, or able to contribute on behalf of someone who may be unable to donate during the financial hardships of Covid-19, you can find their donation page via GlobalGiving here.

What a beautiful view

Said the moon to the sun

So balanced, so peaceful, so tranquil, so calm


Said the sun

How foolish you are

She chuckled

She shrieked

For she knew he was wrong

You’re blind Mr. Moon

It’s a delusion your sight

When I shine

I reveal

I expose

I bare light

Her rays, they glimmer

They gleam

They ignite

The sun showed the moon what she meant by her plight

That one over there

He stands tall

He stands high

But look,

Really close,

The disguised, hidden lie

It’s obscured to the moon

and concealed from the stars

Masked by the night Masked by the dark

On sharing her eyes, the moon gasped in distress

Perplexed, bewildered

He shed tears at the mess

You’re right, I mistaken

The moon granted the sun

‘Balanced’, ‘serene’

How blinded I was

I see what you see

I see the unjust

That man who stands tall

Stands on top of those crushed

This article ensures the use of the term ‘sex work’ as opposed to ‘prostitution’. This is done to separate the industry from any negative connotations and because acknowledging the industry as ‘work’ is intrinsic to acknowledging the rights of each worker.