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May 23, 2020

Sex workers Conditions during in coronavirus


Prostitution has always been constructed as a social problem and at the same time,  as the "world's oldest profession".  This dichotomous perception of Prostitution has ruled the social response to women in Prostitution.  The fact that this 'problematic and undesirable profession'  was practised almost exclusively by women created a category of women, who were prostitutes - undesirable persons,  '' fallen women'',  who needed to be reformed. 

The perception of such women as 'bad women'  further evolved and they came to be viewed as immoral and debauchery. 


The profession itself is thought to have an evil influence on the moral fabric of society,  and particularly,  on the character of 'good women'. 


Sex workers are adults who receive money or goods in exchange for consensual sexual services or erotic performances,  either regularly or occasionally. 

The term '' sex worker'' recognizes that sex work is work.  Prostitution,  on the other hand,  has connotations of criminality and immorality. Many people who sell sexual services prefer the term ''sex worker'' and find   ''prostitute'' demeaning and stigmatized,  which contributes to their exclusion from health,  legal and social services. 

 Prostitution,  the practice of engaging in relatively indiscriminate sexual activity,  in general,  with someone who is not a spouse or a friend,  in exchange for immediate payment in money or other valuables.  Prostitutes may be female or male or transgender; and Prostitution may entail heterosexual or homosexual activity, but historically most of the prostitutes have been women and most clients men. 

Perception of prostitution is based on culturally determined values that differ between societies.  In some societies, prostitutes have been viewed as members of a recognized profession, in others,  they have been shunned,  reviled and punished with stoning,  imprisonment and death.  Few societies have exercised the same severity towards clients; indeed in many societies,  clients suffer less,  if any legal repercussions. 

In some cultures,  Prostitution has been required of young girls as a rite of puberty or as a means of acquiring a dowry,  and some religions have required prostitution of  a certain class of priestess especially. 

The ancient Greeks and Romans mandated that prostitutes wear distinctive dress and pay severe taxes.  Hebrew law did not forbid prostitution but confined the practice to foreign women.  Among the ordinances laid down by Moses to regulate public health,  were several dealing with serially transmitted diseases. 

Europe church leaders,  during the middle ages,  attempted to rehabilitate penitent prostitutes and fund their dowries.  Nevertheless,  prostitution flourished: of was not merely tolerated,  but also protected,  licensed and regulated by law and it constituted a considerable source of public revenue.  Public brothels were established in large cities throughout Europe.  At Toulouse in France,  the profits were shared between the city and the university; in England,  bordellos were originally licensed by the bishops of Winchester and subsequently by Parliament. 

Stricter controls were imposed during the 16th century because of the new serial morality that accompanies the Protestant Reformation and the Counter-Reformation.  Just as significant was the dramatic upsurge of serially transmitted diseases.  Sporadic attempts were made to suppress brothels and even to introduce medical inspections,  but such measures were to little avail. 

In the late 19th century, a variety of changes in western societies revived efforts to suppress prostitution.  With the rise of feminism,  many came to regard male liberties as a threat to women's status and physical health.  Also influential was a new religious based moralistic in Protestant countries.  Anti-prostitution campaigns flourished from the 1860s,  often in association with temperance and women's suffrage movements.  International cooperation to end the trafficking in women for the purpose of prostitution began in 1899.  In 1921,  the League of Nations established a Committee on the Trafficking in Women and Children and in 1949,  the United Nations General Assembly adopted a convention for the suppression of prostitution. 



In the United States,  prostitution was best sporadically controlled until the passage of the federal Mann Act (1910),  which prohibited inter-state transportation of women for ''immoral purposes''.  By 1915,  nearly all states had passed the laws that banned brothels or regulated the profits of prostitution.  After World Was II, prostitution remained prohibited in most western countries,  though it was unofficially tolerated in some cities.  Many law-enforcement agencies became more concerned with regulating the crimes associated with the practice, especially, acts of theft and robbery committed against clients. Authorities also intervened to prevent girls from being coerced into prostitution (white slavery). Prostitution is illegal in most countries of the United States,  though it is legal in some countries in Nevada. 

In most Asian and Middle Eastern countries,  prostitution is illegal but widely tolerated.  Among predominantly Muslim countries, Turkey has legalized prostitution and made it subject to a system of health checks for sex workers and in Bangladesh, prostitution is nationally legal but associated behaviors such as soliciting, are prohibited.  In some Asian countries,  the involvement of children in prostitution has encouraged the growth of ''sex tourism" by men from countries where such practices are illegal. Many Latin American countries tolerate prostitution but restrict associated activities.  In Brazil, for example, brothels, pimping and child exploitation is illegal. 

During the 1980s,  attitude towards prostitution changed radically through two major developments.  One was the worldwide spread of AIDS,  which increased concern about public health problems created by prostitution. In Africa, especially, one factor in the rapid spread of AIDS was the prostitution industry serving migrant laborers. A second influential development was a renewal of feminist interest and the perspective that prostitution is both a consequence and a symptom of gender-based exploitation. Reflecting these shifting attitudes, from the 1980s, the more neutral term 'sex worker'  was increasingly employed to describe those involved in commercial sex activities. 

It is difficult to generalize about the background or conditions of prostitutes because so much of what is known about them,  derives from studies of poorer and less privileged individuals,  people who are more likely to come into contact with courts and official agencies. Much more is known about streetwalkers than about the higher status women, who can be more selective about their clients and work conditions. Based on available studies, though, it is reasonable to assert that female sex workers often are economically disadvantaged and lack skills and training to support themselves. Many are drawn at an early age into prostitution and associated crime and drug dependency can be an aggravating factor. They frequently are managed by a male procurer pimp or by a supervisor or madam in a house of prostitution. Health hazards to prostitutes include serially transmitted diseases,  some of which may be acquired through drug abuse. Male prostitution has received less public attention in most cultures. Heterosexual male prostitution-involving males hired by or for females-is rare. Homosexual male prostitution has probably existed in most societies, though, only in the 20th century was it recognized as a major social phenomenon and its prevalence increased during the late 20th and early 21st century. 

Feminist approach to sex work
For feminism, prostitution has symbolized oppression, victimization and the exploitation of womanhood. This is because it has looked at prostitution though the framework of a rigid understanding of patriarchy, viewing it as objectifying women's bodies and as the commercialisation of sex. Hence, for feminists, prostitutes are victims of unequal power relations between the sexes. No 'real' woman would willingly agree to do sex work, and if she does so, it is because of her ;false consciousness'. 

We hear feminists talk of prostitution as 'female sex slavery'  and 'serial victimhood'. These perceptions echo the early reformist discourse,  which views women as needing to be protected - preferably by law - from lustful men. But the fact remains that in most contexts - including India - prostitution is neither legal nor illegal. It simply has no status. 
The victim imagery has endangered several positions on prostitution,  including feminists. Those who see women in sex work as 'slaves', advocate the complete eradication of prostitution - this is known as the "abolitionist position". 
The State and other establishments such as NGOs, often use this approach. Another feminist position is reformist, where women in prostitution are seen as in need of rescue and reform because they have lost their way, been tricked or trafficked into sex work or lack character. Rescue and rehabilitation strategies are used here, to save these women from sex work and then rehabilitate them in alternate work. A third approach is the regulatory approach, which relies on law. This does not take the stand of banning prostitution, rather accepts that prostitution is here to stay and, therefore, needs regulation. Laws like Indians Immoral Traffick Prevention Act 1956 (ITPA) are a reflection of this approach. 

Finally, there is the right based approach, which is silent on the merits or morality of sex work but contends that women in sec work should have the same rights and entitlements as any other citizen and that the State must act as the duty bearer of these rights. 

A complex issue that has troubled feminists in the context of sex work is the question of consent. The women's movement has raised the issue of consent in serial relations, mainly within the domestic or marital sphere.  In prostitution, adult women consent to exchange sexual services for money, but the ability to consent is contested. Because feminism posits prostitution as violence, this viewpoint forecloses any discussion over whether women can actively choose sex work as a livelihood option. Accordingly, it is assumed that all female sex workers have been coerced into sex work. Violence against women has focused on domestic violence, rape, sexual harassment, acid throwing and similar crimes. So, when violence is conflated with sex work, it becomes difficult to see the trees for the woods. For example,  in India, many sex workers report that they experience violence and exploitation mainly at the hands of police and petty local thugs, rather than in sexual relations with clients. The debates around trafficking further bolster the idea of sex work as violence exchanging sexual services for money is conflated with selling of a body to another (trafficking). Violence that does occur within the field of sex work is used to justify punitive action against the sex work industry such as closure of brothels and clean ups. 

The basic tenet of anti-trafficking rhetoric is that bodies are unwillingly sold and transported across borders. This dovetails perfectly with the feminist argument that prostitution involves no choice and is the major market for trafficking. Trafficking is not viewed as an issue of poverty that causes many women to willingly enter into agreements with traffickers because they are desperately seeking a better life,  secure livelihoods and/or escape from domestic violence, poverty, conflict or ecological or natural disasters and displacement. 

Many women report entering sex work because of the compulsions of difficult circumstances, mainly poverty, and this leads them to think of sex work as a means of survival. But, without finding out the multiplicity of 'push' and 'pull' factors in sex workers' histories, most feminists have held that women are trafficked into sex work because of their vulnerability as women, the movement to stop trafficking, by feminists and other groups favoring abolition, is thus framed as the necessity to stop prostitution.  By not perceiving the possibility of consent and focusing on sex work as violence, feminist understanding of sex work has been incomplete, to say the least. 

Sex workers sell sexual services in order to earn a livelihood. The vast majority of sex workers choose to do sex work because it is the best option they have. Many sex workers struggle with poverty and destitution and have fewer options for work. Others find that sex work offers better pay and more flexible working conditions than other jobs. And some pursue sex work to explore and express their sensuality. 

Globally, female sex workers are 13.5% more likely to be living with HIV than other women of reproductive age. In Asia, female sex workers are almost 30% more likely to be living with HIV. 

Modeling studies indicate that decriminalising sex work could lead to a 46% reduction in new HIV infections in sex workers over 10 years; eliminating sexual violence against sex workers could lead to a 20% reduction in new HIV infections. 

WHO supports countries to address these structural barriers and ensure sex workers' human rights as well as implementing a comprehensive package of HIV and health services for sex workers through community led approaches. 

More than 5,000 women plying their trade in Garstin Bastion Road,  commonly known as GB Road, in the ruins of the old walled city of Shahjahanbad in Central New Delhi. 

Stretching for a kilometer or two from the Ajmeri Gate to the Lahori Gate, GB Road is one of the largest red light districts in India, with more than 100 brothels located on shabby floors above the street level shops. 

Over 60% of Delhi sex workers have returned to their home states due to loss of means of livelihood amid the coronavirus-induced lock down that pushed many of them to the brink of starvation. 

The fear of contracting the deadly pathogen has kept customers away, leaving a debilitating impact on sex workers in the city, 

Kusum, who is the president of the All India Network of Sox Workers (AINSW),  a group of sex workers that assists others with legal rights, health issues and social security across the country,  said over 60% of the sex workers in Delhi have already left for their home states. 

"The 60% population accounts for around 3,000 sex workers.  According to government figures,  a total of registered 5,000 sex workers reside in Delhi", Kusum said. 

She said they were forced to leave the city after enduring weeks of struggle for basic facilities like food and medicines. 

Shalini, one such worker,  moved back to her village in Uttar Pradesh after living for eight years in Delhi. 

"I ran away from my abusive home in UP at the age of 18. I wanted to be an actress but got into prostitution to survive in this city", 26-year-old Shalini told PTI. 

"after getting into this business (sex trade),  at least I was not struggling for food,  I was not on streets.  But ever since the coronavirus outbreak and the lockdown, I have zero customers and money is drying up",  she said. 

Another sex worker Rajni (name changed) said she and her four-year-old son have not eaten properly in the last two months. 

"When my son fainted out of weakness two weeks back, I decided to move back. I have some relatives in UP who do not know what I do here. I will stay with them for some days before figuring out what to do next", she added. 

Sharmila (name changed) who grew up as an orphan on the streets of Kanpur,  became a sex worker in Delhi five years ago,  to make ends meet. 

"But now there is no food, no medicines and no customers. It is impossible to survive any longer in Delhi with the savings that I have. The social distancing is going to hit our business more than anything, so there is no point staying here", Sharmila,  who is planning to move back to Kanpur, said. 

Rajni, Sharmila and Shalini are residents of the Garstin Bastion Road, or more famously GB Road and now renamed as Swami Shradhanand Marg. There are around 100 brothels on the one-kilometer stretch housing approximately 1,500 sex workers. 

Activists fear that many of these women who were on medication for different diseases, including HIV-AIDS, will not be able to get proper treatment in their hometowns. 

"We feel all the work which we did in the past years for HIV and other diseases would be of no use.  Many of them, who escaped abusive homes can again become victims of domestic violence. There are man concerns but mostly, we are worried about their health",  Kusum said. 

She further said that similar migration of sex workers is taking place in other cities too. 

Amit Kumar,  the National coordinator for the AINSW,  said the GB Road has completely shut down and most of it residents have returned to their home towns. "We were doing our best to provide dry ration, medicines, masks and sanitizers.  We also gave them basic information on HIV treatment", he said. 

Kumar said, many of the sex workers went to their homes during Holiday but they did not return. 

India is currently under the biggest lockdown with around 1.3 billion people asked to stay home in view of the coronoavirus pandemic. The nationwide lockdown was initially imposed from March 25 to May 17, but was later extended till May 30 to contain the spread of the deadly disease. 

At Theni in southern Tamil Nadu, Leela's schedule has been thrown into disarray after the announcement of the 21-day lockdown. "Not that I had a proper schedule before,  but I was working and making money. This lockdown has made a mess of our lives", says the 31-year-old sex worker. 

Yet, Leela has not allowed the lockdown to defeat her. Everyday, for the past fortnight,  she has been calling people in her own community, people who visit her and everyone on her contact list to tell them about the coronavirus. "Everyday, I make about eight to nine calls, mostly to other workers.  I tell them how to wash their hands properly and about social distancing". Sometimes, Leela goes to the shops nearby and tells customers waiting to buy things to maintain a good distance. ''I also tell the shopkeepers not to encourage crowds, lest it would turn fatal to him",she says. Leela is among the many sex workers across the State, who are trying to create awareness about the viral infection. 

Sex workers are using their experience in creating awareness about HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases in their own community to do the same about the coronavirus. Organizations like South Indian AIDS Action Program me (SIAAP) in Chennai, have trained some sex workers on the measures to be taken to contain the spread of the coronavirus, identification of symptoms and suggestions on immunity boosting food items. They had started creating awareness before the fear of the virus gripped the nation. "I have been doing it for more than 15 days, much before the janta curfew", says Leela. 

31-year-old sex worker, Maya has many issues to grapple with. But she is also making videos to make people aware of the coronavirus and has been sending it to whatsapp groups that she is part of. 

"The moment I knew there was this contagious virus, I stocked my place with handwash and dettol soaps", says Maya. She started insisting on men who visited her, used it adequately. "Some were angry, but I explained how important it was, not just for me but for them too". 

The coronavirus Long Haul requires a comprehensive relief policy framework "sex workers have been at the forefront of halting the spread of pandemics", says Shyamala Nataraj, executive director of SIAAP, pointing to the effective handling of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in India and elsewhere. 

''In India,  when HIV was first identified, sex workers were targeted as reservoirs of the infection. There were raids, arrests, many were locked up and discriminated against. Slowly, government policies began to see them as agents to protect themselves and others. Sex workers were supported in exercising their capacity to help themselves and others. 
The HIV infection in the country went down most noticeably and most quickly among sex workers. Today, prevalence rates among sex workers are the lowest compared to rates in other vulnerable populations", she said. Nataraj says that sex workers are also at the forefront of battling the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"Through community-based organizations, they are spreading awareness. They have taken ownership of civil society to do their bit to prevent the spread of disease", she says. However, Maya has pressing concerns for the lockdown period. Like daily wage laborers, she lives hand-to-mouth and there is no work coming by now. "This morning, my landlord berated me for not paying the rent. How could I pay? she asks. Because she is a single woman and the stigma attached to sex work, Maya has not been able to procure a ration card -  a necessity to claim the benefits announced by the State Government, such as supply of rations and an allowance of Rs 1,000. "How am I supposed to live the next few days? ''  she asks. Ram Avatar and his family walk along with other migrant workers to their native places among the nationwide lockdown on the NH-24 near Delhi-UP border in New Delhi, March 27, 2020. 

Swaminathan, programme director of SIAAP, says that to avail relief measures announced by the government,  one needs ration cards or unorganized sector ID cards. "Most sex workers don't have these cards. They also cannot reveal their status and their source of income to claim these relief measures due to the stigma associated with sex work", he says. Veena, an office bearer of the Vaadamalar AIDS Thaduppu Sangangalin Kootamaippu Federation of community based organizations working for prevention of AIDS observes that more than half of the sex workers in Tamil Nadu do not have ration cards. Most sex workers are also finding it hard to access medical facilities, including for some, getting their quota of ART tablets that are used to treat HIV. 

"We can get it only from the ART centers at Government Hospitals. But since a person who tested positive for the coronavirus died in Madurai, we have not been able to visit the hospital. The tablets are given to us once in three months. For those who are running out of tablets, it is going to be difficult. 

"Even for those who have the tablets, there are other concerns", says Leela. 

"The tablets require you to consume nutritious food. How many can afford it now?  Most of us cannot afford a square meal." According to Janani Venkatesan, project officer of SIAAP,  the pandemic has taken a huge toll on the business of sex workers since their work involves contact between humans. 

"There is loss of income, which means there is a scarcity of food for themselves and their families. Many also have to pay off loans and/or pay rent for their homes", she says.  A large population of sex workers live alone and have no financial or social support,  she adds.  The lockdown could also have an impact on the health of sex workers who need to regularly access services for sexual and reproductive health. "Those who are HIV positive cannot especially afford to miss their ART medication. 

Sex work is also not recognized as work, so there is no possibility for relief to compensate wages. Even after the lockdown, sex workers will not get brisk business due to the fear of transmission. "SIAAP suggests that the government set up welfare boards for sex workers, similar to transgender welfare boards and provide free houses -  a demand that resonates with many sex workers this report spoke to pointing out that the women are prone to domestic violence or intimate partner violence during the lockdown, when they are staying at home for an extended period of time, Dr. Swaminathan says this might result in stress and other mental health issues. 

"There must be a response plan from the government",  he add Arundathi Gosh of Sangama has started a crowd funding campaign with a target of Rs 20 lakhs, which they hope will support the sex workers in Karnataka for two months. '' We plan to provide Rs 2000 per sex worker, including transpersons", says Nisha Gulur,  vice president of NNSW.  The organization,  which has a presence in eight states, says the lockdown has sent a wave of panic among sex workers. 

"Our priority had been to advise sex workers not to work at any cost. In Maharashtra, where they have brothel-based sex work, this is easier. In other States, we are doing our best. We are trying to reach those who do not have smartphones by word of mouth. In Maharashtra again, sex workers have been able to support one another since they live in a locality, in terms of rent and ration. Elsewhere it is not possible, that is why we need to raise funds", she says. 

Allowing commercial sex work to commerce immediately after lockdown in India's red light areas could lead to a rapid rise in cases that could quickly overwhelm hospitals, says a modeling study from researchers at the Yale School of Medicine and Harvard Medical School. Though these findings have been shared with State Governments,  the findings are still being peer-reviewed. 

As per the study,  if red light areas are kept closed following the lifting of lockdown, there can be a delay in the peak of COVID-19 cases by up to 12 days in Mumbai, 17 days in New Delhi, 29 days in Pune, 30 days in Nagpur and 36 days in Kolkata. For the purpose of the study, the lockdown period was considered from March 24 to May 3. While relaxations have been made in several zones, lockdown continues to be in effect in India. Maharashtra, West Bengal and Delhi are among the regions with the highest COVID-19 burden. 

The closure can reduce COVID-19 cases by 21% in Mumbai, 27% in Pune, 31% in New Delhi, 56% in Nagpur and 66% in Kolkata in a 45-day period, the study finds. Deaths can be reduced by 63% in India,  28% in Mumbai,  38% in New Delhi,  43% in Pune,  61% in Nagpur and 66% in Kolkata in the first 60 days, the study also says. These numbers are based on the prevalent reproduction number (RO) of 2.0, meaning that every infected person spreads the disease to two others. Experts say that an epidemic started to cease when the RO dips below 1. 

There are close to 6,37,500 sex workers in India, as per the National Aids Control Organization (NACO), and over 5 lakh customers visit red light areas. 

The study relied on date from Census figures on sex worker populations as well as interviews in red light areas to determine the extent to which sex workers, brothel owners and pimps interacted with clients. 

Other countries 
Experience from other coutnries have brought out the links between commercial sex work and COVID-19. Japan registered a sharp increase in cases among sex workers and their customers.  In Germany and Australia, brothels remain indefinitely closed, the authors underscore. 

A sex worker carries packs of biscuits distributed by volunteers at be Road in New Delhi on April 18, 2020. 

If red light areas stay closed after lockdown, peak in cases can be delayed, say Yale, Harvard researchers. 

"The purpose of our modeling exercises is not to predict what will happen in the future, but to understand the effect of the intervention on the future. Our study findings show that there is a strong effect of the red light area closures, especially, immediately following the lockdown", study co-author Dr. Jeffrey Townsend, Professor of Biostatistics, Yale School of Medicine. 

Names of the women have been changed to protect their identities.

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