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An unequal battle: Tamil Nadu sex workers face COVID-19 lockdown heat

Caught off-guard by the lockdown, sex workers in the state find that they not only have to struggle through limited resources but also fight age-old prejudice

Published: 23rd April 2020 06:46 AM  |   Last Updated: 24th April 2020 10:20 AM   |  A+A-

In times of need, organisations like SIAAP, National Network of Sex Workers and Vadamalar Foundation volunteer to get the job done. (Photo | EPS)

Express News Service

CHENNAI: To eradicate the highly contagious coronavirus, government and private agencies have been giving their blood, sweat and grime to not only provide healthcare options but also shelter and food to the marginalised sections of our society.

Function halls have been converted into shelters for the homeless and dry rations have been provided to those who rely on daily wages to put food on their plates.

Despite the effort, certain sections of our society slip through the cracks. Virus or not, sex workers often don’t make it to the list of beneficiaries in any of these programmes.

Like any other unorganised sector dependent on everyday work and transient income, sex workers too were caught off guard at the sudden implementation of the lockdown.

Without much savings to their name, staying afloat through the workless period has turned out to be quite a gruelling challenge.

This was only made worse by the fact that hardly any help comes their way. Take the provision of dry rations, for instance.

“The government has been providing dry rations to those with ration cards. As most sex workers do not have a permanent residence, they do not qualify to apply for one.

In times like these, the government has overlooked the profession and failed to consider it a part of the unorganised sector,” says Janani, an officer at South India AIDS Action Programme (SIAAP). Such oversight is not something new.

While organisations like National Network of Sex Workers (NNSW), SIAAP and Vadamalar Federation have been campaigning for the rights of sex workers for years, it does not change the fact that the men and women have no one to turn to in times of emergencies.

Even otherwise good Samaritans seem to shirk away from this demographic. It was so with Padma* from Theni district.

“As the lockdown was so sudden, my sons and I didn’t expect that there would be a loss of income. We were unprepared and hadn’t saved any money.

I have been trying to ask for loans from the people in my neighbourhood. One woman I approached demeaned me for my profession. When her daughter continued to speak to me, she pulled her away and instructed her to not talk to me because I am a sex worker,” she narrates.

The lockdown has been much worse on those who are the sole breadwinners in the family. Without the work, they find that they are not able to afford even the essentials. Padmaja*, another sex worker from the Theni district, has been struggling to make ends meet; she has a 20-year-old son with mental illness to care for too.

While her neighbours were able to benefit from the distribution of dry rations and aid of Rs 1,000 from the government, she could not avail of the same — because of no ration card.

“I thought that I will be able to make some money after the lockdown is lifted and everything in my life will go back to normal. However, when the lockdown extension was announced, I lost hope and am now scared of the future. I have managed till now with the ration packet provided by the Vadamalar Federation, but I have no idea what to do when that runs out,” she says.

Worry and uncertainty has had her considering suicide as well. Like everywhere else, being a single woman having to fend for herself comes with its own set of problems here too. Prema*, like many in her line of work, has no family or friends to turn to in times of need. That she does not have other mouths to feed discourages fellow workers from sharing their resources, it seems.

“Recently, I had run out of rice and asked my sister for help. Unlike me, she has a ration card. She was rude to me and said that I didn’t have a family to support like she does, hence she didn’t want to help me.

That day I came back home and fainted out of hunger because I didn’t have anything left to eat. When my husband was alive, I was able to rely on him and his source of income. Since his death, it has been very difficult,” narrates Prema.

With their long years of work in this region, groups that have always championed for the sex workers have stepped in to bridge the divide as much as they can. The NNSW, acting via Vadamalar Federation and SIAAP in Tamil Nadu, has disbursed funds for relief drives.

“Around 178 ration packets have been handed over to sex workers in Tamil Nadu,” says Kamala*, a sex worker in Madurai and member of the NNSW and Vadamalar Federation.

“As sex workers constantly face prejudice for the job they hold, they are having to move houses often to remain safe. That is why they do not have a permanent address and are forced to lose out on the benefits made available by the government. Naturally, there was an immediate call for help from the community soon after the lockdown was put in place.” This major hitch of not having the key to basic amenities looks likely to persist, lockdown or not.

Prema’s application for a ration card was denied multiple times. While she has written to the Collector’s office about it, she is yet to hear from them. While the troubles of many may find a space for a reprieve after the lockdown ends, even if it is months away from liberation day, the light at the end of the tunnel seems much farther for sex workers.

Even as normalcy returns to the rest of the world, organisations in the field would have plenty to do in terms of re-establishing welfare in these circles. And they seem up for the task.

“I am constantly in touch with sex workers around the state. They keep updating me about their situation. Many of them are facing mental health issues because of financial problems and being ignored. I urge them to contact SIAAP and Vadamalar Federation for psychological help. We are all part of the same community and family, and we help each other as much as we can,” says Kamala who is spearheading the relief operations in Tamil Nadu.

*Names changed on request

More from Chennai.

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