Ground Report | New Delhi: Women Sex Workers of Sonagachi; The plight of the sex workers is indescribable be it in any part of the world. Their lifestyle, living quarters, and how they live their daily life is a dismay to those who are working on human development. They are one of the most neglected sections of society. Recently, there have been many efforts going on to reduce their sufferings by NGOs and other developmental organizations along with the governments.
In India, 95 percent of the trafficked victims are forced into sex work, shows data from National Crime Records Bureau. However, these numbers are just a fraction of the actual reality as sex traffickers work in a clandestine way. Andhra Pradesh leads the list with more than one lakh registered female sex workers while Karnataka has 79,000. These two states are followed by Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, and West Bengal.
Women Sex Workers of Sonagachi
Since the commercial sex workers living in red light areas are deprived of bank accounts or identity proofs, they can’t access formal sources of credit. They have to borrow from informal sources like pimps and brothel operators. The study further says that if situations do not improve by March 2021, the debt amount can become intergenerational bondage where sex workers might force their daughters too in sex work for repayment. The pimps and brothel managers use the debts as a coercive binding factor to intimidate and control them further.
“We are so desperate to earn money and pay our dues. Some of us are engaging with customers in this coronavirus time also. We know it’s risky but we have to pay rent, medical bills, and other expenses. On top of it, we have to repay the existing debts,” says Kauvery (name changed) one of the members of the sex workers community hailing from Mumbai.
Virgin cleansing is common now and is rising in the Sonagachi Red light area. The Virgin Cleansing myth, which began in South Africa, has spread across the world from India to Thailand. Recently, the trend has spread with the movement of migrant workers in Bengal to Bangladesh as well.
Ruchira Gupta, founder of the NGO Apne Aap which combats sex trafficking gives insight, “Virgin Cleansing is the cruelest of all the false hopes AIDS patients are given. This false belief has led to a sharp rise in the number of men asking for girls under the age of 18, who are assumed to be virgins. She said that when she spoke to men about their preferences for young girls, they told her that they like girls who look childlike, innocent, and fresh.”
“There are no figures on this, but the local girls are telling me it’s widespread. These are rich men who do this. They’ll invest a lot of money to get a suitable virgin. They’re ready to pay almost anything for girl: 50,000–100,000 rupees more, if needed.”
My life in the ‘red lights’
It isn’t just young girls who are victims of such false beliefs. According to a paper titled Rape of individuals with disability: AIDS and the folk belief of virgin cleansing by Nora Ellen Grace and Reshma Trasi, people who are “blind, deaf, physically impaired, intellectually disabled, or who have mental-health disabilities” are sometimes raped under the erroneous presumption that individuals with disabilities are sexually inactive and therefore virgins. In Zimbabwe, some people also believe that the blood produced by raping a virgin will cleanse the infected person’s blood of the disease.
The West Bengal state government has maintained a noticeable silence on the issue, revealing the callous lack of regard for the safety of sex workers and their rights. She also tells that that none of these girls can negotiate for protected sex and run a high risk of contracting STDs, tuberculosis, jaundice, and, of course, HIV.
Statistically speaking, India has the third-largest HIV epidemic in the world. The epidemic is concentrated among key affected populations such as sex workers. The vulnerabilities that drive the epidemic are different in different parts of the country. The pattern of HIV prevalence in Indian states differ. For example in West Bengal, Arunachal Pradesh, Goa, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Punjab, Sikkim, and Uttarakhand, 15-24 yr old respondents have higher HIV prevalence than those who are 25 yrs and older. (Women Sex Workers of Sonagachi)
Sonagachi is home to labyrinthine lanes populated by several multi-storied columns of buildings and sex workers living in shared rooms—with as many as 10 sharing a room. The oldest and largest red-light district of Asia currently houses around 5,000 brothel-based sex workers, many with children (excluding another 3,000-4,000 who commute daily), from the suburbs, parts of rural Bengal, and the neighboring states of Bihar, Jharkhand, and Odisha. On a regular day, the brothels used to receive 10,000-15,000 customers. That was in the pre-pandemic days.
The imposition of the nationwide lockdown as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic hit daily wagers and several marginalized classes hard. Sex workers, however, are not only economically and socially marginalized but culturally marginalized as well. As workers who earn a livelihood through the labour of their body, they belong to fringe groups, ostracised by the mainstream society despite several pro-rights movements. And as Sonagachi reportedly shut its shop during the lockdown, how the sex workers managed to make ends meet was a point to ponder upon.
The Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC)—translated as Unstoppable Women’s Collective Committee, which today comprises 60,000 female, male and transgender members—is working as much as their resources allow them to procure dry ration including rice, oil, pulses, and essential vegetables like potatoes and onions for the sex workers of Sonagachi on a daily basis. The list also includes masks and sanitizers, but that is simply not enough in numbers.
marginalization of sex workers
According to a report on the 3rd week of April 2020, Dr. Smarajit Jana, epidemiologist and chief advisor at DMSC, informed that efforts are on to raise funds via crowdsourcing, while organizations such as Belur Math and Ramakrishna Mission and some individuals in a friendly capacity had helped with essential items. West Bengal government Minister and local MLA Shashi Panja and the local Councillors had also distributed dry rations and masks to many. But while DMSC had made arrangements to run, the announcement of lockdown extension and corresponding inflation coupled with a strain on funds, the drive was tough to continue.
“This is Sonagachi where four to five girls stay in one room. Things are better now, but business has still not picked up much. Sex workers have been in a bad situation ever since everything was closed. If we don’t have money, how will we eat?” said one sex worker. She is also a volunteer of the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, the welfare organization for sex workers across West Bengal. (Women Sex Workers of Sonagachi)
The most dangerous proposition, however, as Dr. Jana pointed out during the time was the prospect of one contracting the virus and becoming the super spreader in the already closed quarters that the sex workers live in. As DMSC spearheads information dissemination on hand hygiene, spotting and reporting symptoms, and social distancing during COVID-19, the organization was also in the preparation of facilitating its own secure quarantine facilities at Baruipur, Durgapur, and Cooch Behar where the sex workers were not and are still not subject to further stigma. Another problem is a reportedly non-aggressive rate of testing in the state.
Though sex work is not legalized in India, Sonagachi (and similar areas in Mumbai and Delhi) has survived in the state through successive communist and pro-poor regimes. A disease like COVID-19, which spreads through droplets of humans naturally entails social distancing as a coping mechanism—prohibiting human-to-human contact within one meter. But the very nature of the job sex workers is a performative of the intimate.
The basis of the marginalization of sex workers stems from prejudice against the nature of their profession, thought of as “lowly” or “indecent”—guided by a privileged discourse of morality. An allusion to Sonagachi or its local nomenclature nishiddho polli (forbidden territories)—would leave many a Bengali bhadrolok-bhadromohila red-faced, and yet, ironically—as per ritual a priest must go the brothels to collect Punya Mati (blessed soil) needed to make Durga idols in Kumortuli before every Durga Pujo.
Regarding the crisis, Dr. Ghosh says, “The West Bengal government has pledged free rations for 3 months to the working class which would include the sex-workers but only those who have ration cards will benefit. Sadly, a majority of sex workers don’t have ration cards because they cannot provide proof of residence because the IPC makes it a criminal offense for anyone to rent their premises for the purpose of sex work. The sex worker is therefore confronted with multiple discrimination and difficulties. Right now, the very existence of sex workers is under threat.”