Rasheeda Bibi has five rupees to her name. A worker in India’s sex industry, she lives in the narrow lanes of Kolkata’s Kalighat red light area with her three children in a room she rents for 620 rupees (£6) a month.
As a thunderstorm rages through the city, Bibi worries about the leaky roof of her small room.
It is now a month since India went into total lockdown on 26 March to contain the spread of Covid-19. With no clients, Bibi’s savings have dwindled. She has no money left for food, or sanitary towels for herself and her daughters, let alone for fixing the roof.
As non-essential economic activity has ground to a halt, the lockdown has hit millions of people working in the informal sector. The government has announced relief schemes for the poor, but women working in the sex industry are outside their ambit. In India sex work is not illegal, but several supporting activities are; maintaining brothels and soliciting customers are criminal offences.
According to a survey by UNAids, in 2016 India had 657,800 sex workers, though the true number is likely to be much higher. Most of their clients earn daily wages and, as millions of people have become unemployed, this clientele has disappeared overnight.
Urmi Basu, the founder of New Light in Kolkata, which works with children of sex workers, worries about the long-term situation. “Even when the lockdown lifts, if they start taking clients, there is no way of knowing who’s carrying the virus. Unlike HIV/Aids, a condom can’t protect them. How does one negotiate safety in this situation?”
As part of the government’s relief scheme for the poor, India’s prime minister Narendra Modi has announced a financial package that will deposit 500 rupees (£5.30) monthly into the bank accounts of 200 million people. But those working in or trafficked into the sex industry – many of whom lack government-approved documentation to access public distribution systems and relief schemes – are not included.
Women like Bibi earn around 200-300 rupees (£2) per client and see three or four clients a day. From their earnings, they pay rent, utility bills, and buy food and medicines, as well as pay for education and care for dependents. Then there is the commission for brothel keepers and pimps.
“They have no food, they are starving. They live in tiny, windowless rooms with no fresh air. Many don’t have access to running water; sometimes, the choice is between paying water bills or topping up phones,” says Ruchira Gupta, founder of Apne Aap Women Worldwide, which works for the eradication of sex trafficking in India.Tags: COVID, India