Trafficked, exploited, starved: The story of the pandemic and sex workers - Hindustan Times
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Trafficked, exploited, starved: The story of the pandemic and sex workers

May 24, 2021 01:39 PM IST

Unlike traffickers who are managing to push girls into the flesh trade even during the pandemic, sex workers, already stereotyped and marginalised, are struggling to survive in near penury

A 55-second video captures the ordeal a 19-year-old, trafficked from Jharkhand to Bihar seven years ago, had to endure. Sobs wrack her delicate frame as she cries, “Papa, papa”, while hugging her father. The father is inconsolable too, as he embraces her in a tight hug. A few seconds into the video, the brother comes forward and the three weep together.

Delhi’s GB Road, which used to spring to life in the evenings, is now struggling for survival. Of the approximately 4,000 sex workers who resided there, close to half have migrated back to their villages. (Representational image/HT Archive) PREMIUM
Delhi’s GB Road, which used to spring to life in the evenings, is now struggling for survival. Of the approximately 4,000 sex workers who resided there, close to half have migrated back to their villages. (Representational image/HT Archive)

The minor was kidnapped from Sindri in Jharkhand when she was 12 years old by a woman who made her smell a laced handkerchief. When the girl regained consciousness, she found herself on a bus. The handkerchief was used again, and the next time she opened her eyes, she was in a strange house in Darbhanga where she was told she had been bought for 1 lakh.

For the next seven years, she was abused, beaten and forced to be part of a dance orchestra that travelled through parts of Bihar. Nude dances were part of what was expected of her and, each time she cried or asked for her family, she got a thrashing in return.

On one of her dance tours, a kind man gave her the number of Virender Kumar Singh, the director of Mission Mukti Foundation. She managed to call him and beg for help. With help from the police, Singh and his team finally rescued her in January this year amid huge drama and many tense moments.

She could not be rescued at the first attempt because the orchestra owner had been tipped off and he hid her at a relative’s home. It was only after the police picked up his brother that he relented. He knew the game was up.

But while the young woman was rescued, the pandemic and lockdown, challenges have only increased for anti-trafficking activists and organisations.

Also Read | Covid second wave: Sex workers get help from Good Samaritans

The pandemic-induced trafficking

“Traffickers are using the lockdown to lure young girls into prostitution. The racket is thriving because there are no jobs and families are facing a huge financial crunch. Many girls leave home to take up petty jobs to add to the family income,” says Singh.

The data speaks for itself—Singh’s NGO rescued 30 girls between March 1 and December last year, during the first wave. This year, 70 have already been freed; the last rescue was on May 14, in the midst of the second wave.

Images of burning pyres and patients gasping for oxygen have not deterred traffickers. According to Singh, prostitution ringmasters are advertising spa centres and massage parlours through WhatsApp chat groups and bulk messaging to expand the flesh trade.

In March this year, just when the deadly second wave gripped the country, he sought the police’s help in Surat, from where 14 girls, mostly from West Bengal, were rescued in a single swoop. The “parlour” was littered with used condoms. The rescued included a mother of two children who had been promised a job at a restaurant.

Distress in the red light districts

Unlike the traffickers who are managing to push girls into the flesh trade—and operate in the shadows—established red light areas such as the ones in Delhi’s GB Road, Kolkata’s Sonagachi and Mumbai’s Grant Road have taken a direct hit.

Delhi’s GB Road, which used to spring to life in the evenings, is now struggling for survival. Of the approximately 4,000 sex workers who resided there, close to half have migrated back to their villages. Those who remain are cramped in the dingy brothel rooms, with empty kitchens and dwindling bank balances.

The second wave has hit them harder. Last year, their savings came to their rescue but this time around, they are scrounging for food. NGOs are helping out with dry ration but there isn’t always enough.

Anjali Sonu, project coordinator, Centre for Holistic Development and her team are tapping several sources for donation and received help from the Indian Youth Congress. Its president, Srinivas BV, who has become a key source of support and assistance during the pandemic, confirmed that he helped out with dry ration for 250 sex workers to begin with.

The sex workers, already stereotyped and marginalised, are grateful for the help from NGOs, but say their problems are multifold. They don’t have enough money to get gas cylinders refilled. Many of the older sex workers have rented rooms for their children—because the kids don’t know what their mothers do—and have not been able to pay rent for the last two months. Some are simply handing their children over to shelter homes now.

Usha, who prefers to be called just by her first name (she has a different one for her family), was trafficked from Maharashtra eight years ago. GB Road is her only address, and she says, “I don’t have one rupee today. I used to send 3,000 per month to my mother but can’t any more. I use to entertain three or four customers a day and earn about 900 but I don’t know what to do now. Sometimes we just eat one meal a day. My mother thinks I work for a detergent company and is waiting for the lockdown to end. I really don’t know when I’ll get a customer again.”

Many like Usha have grown accustomed to being sex workers. Till the pandemic struck, the money kept the fires burning; for them and their families in villages. They don’t know any other profession.

She says in a matter-of-fact tone, “I can wash utensils and swab floors but that will give me 3,000 a month. How will I be able to send money to my mother, who is also looking after my five-year-old daughter? I know what hunger feels like.”

Many are dialling their clients for help. Some helped out last year but this time it is getting harder.

The absence of institutional support

Sonu, project coordinator of the Centre for Holistic Development, detailed the plight of the “most stigmatised community of our society” in a letter to Delhi’s lieutenant governor on April 15.

Urging the administration to provide essentials and medical facilities, she sought help for the sex workers, saying that the “horrible impacts of the previous year’s lockdown have not healed” and there is now fear that they are falling into a deeper crisis. No reply has yet been received.

According to the National Network of Sex Workers, “There is an increase in mental health concerns amongst the sex workers due to their livelihood being impacted and uncertainty about the future.”

The ministry for women and child development puts the total number of sex workers in India at three million. Social distancing norms have impacted each one of them. Lalitha Nayak, founder, Society for Participatory Integrated Development has been helping sex workers for over 30 years. “The pandemic has left them most vulnerable,’’ she says, as she now struggles to feed the workers and children born in brothels.

Nayak has been trying to break the chain of trafficking. She runs a centre for children and provides vocational training but the pandemic has left her and other NGOs struggling to just source food. Their only hope is for more donors to come forward.

As one worker put it, “I can’t go to a nearby school for a cooked meal because we are taunted and abused. I wait on the stairs, not for a client, but for food. Can you help me?’’

Help is what they need the most, as they alternate between survival and starvation. India’s institutions must step up.

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