Bhanu Priya, 25, a sex worker, managed to earn Rs 5,000 a month. The money allowed her to pay for food and rent and also raise her four-year-old son. For nearly two months, however, Priya has had no work or money. With the coronavirus pandemic forcing the country into lockdown, the business has dried up. With no ration card, transport and no savings, Priya is now at the end of her tether.
“If this goes on, my son and I will die of starvation,” she said.
This is the story of thousands of sex workers in Andhra Pradesh, a state with one of the highest number of sex workers and trafficking victims and survivors in the country after Maharashtra and West Bengal. With no business or access to rations, sex workers and their families have no choice but to wait in isolation for the government aid to arrive first.
“At this rate though, death will arrive first,” she mused.
Shedding light on the issue, a non-governmental collective working for the rights of trafficking survivors and sex workers has written a letter to AP Chief Minister YSR Jagan Reddy, seeking immediate supplies for sex workers across the state.
‘No Ration Cards’
The AP government has been distributing free rations to be delivered to the doorsteps of all residents of AP. On March 29, a month’s quota of rice was distributed through village volunteers to poor households across the state along with one-kilo toor dal (a type of lentil) and Rs 1,000 cash assistance. No such aid came to Bhanu Priya’s doorstep in Chirala, Prakasam.
The government aid is meant for ration-card holders and Priya did not have one. She had applied for one through Vikmuthi, the NGO that drafted the letter to the CM, nearly two months ago in early March. But she had not yet received it.
“About 50 percent of the sex workers in AP do not have ration cards for state-level help or Jan Dhan accounts for aid from central government,” Vimukti General Secretary M Rammohan told News18. His organization has been working in collaboration with Andhra Pradesh State AIDS Control Society (APSACS) and HELP to register sex workers for ration cards and help them get documents as well as government aid. “These people and their families are receiving no aid. The added stigma of their profession also keeps benefactors away from making donations,” Ramohan added, pointing out the hypocrisy of many who would rather give to an underprivileged group “more suited to their preference”.
Additionally, sex workers also did not have Jan Dhan accounts.
(Sex workers receive rations from Vimukti)
HIV patients suffer
Apart from rations, sex workers in AP, many of whom are receiving treatment for HIV have also been facing a severe crisis of medicines. With strict lockdown enforced across the state, many are facing issues procuring ART tablets needed for the treatment.
According to Vikmukti office-bearer Mehrunnisa, ART tablets are only available in specific centers in government hospitals. “Due to coronavirus, volunteers have been unable to visit the centers and the supply has been cut down to one batch of tablets every three months.”
Even if patients do receive their quota of the medicine, it is only effective if consumed along with nutritious food. And the food is at a premium.
According to M Rammhoan, the lack of precautions taken to ensure the safety of sex-workers, who have been deemed high-risk from coronavirus due to their claustrophobic living conditions, simply pointed to the apathy of government to take accountability for them. “Authorities often say it is tough to identify sex workers, which is why it is tough to provide them with relief. But about 60-70 per cent of HIV positive sex workers are registered with APSACS. They can easily be identified, and helped,” Rammohan said.
‘Save Our Children’
In Andhra Pradesh, districts such as Guntur, Prakasam, Krishna, East and West Godavari and others are hubs of flesh trade and human trafficking. These areas are also densely populated with sex workers including voluntary and trafficked women who live in overcrowded brothels along with their children. According to statistics collected by Vikmukti and Indian Leadership Against Human Trafficking, there are 75,000 sex workers spread across some 30 red-light districts in the state.
Vimukti and HELP documented a brothel in Guntur which had about 75 children living along with sex workers, wit nearly 22 of them between one to two years of age.
While many migrant sex workers managed to return home, Lakshmi (name changed), a migrant sex worker from a village in the outskirts of Eluru, could not return home before the lockdown. she had just given birth and she did not think it safe to travel 30 km on uncertain transport with a one-month-old baby in tow amid the pandemic.
Now, Lakshmi, 30, and her baby are stuck with no resources, food, or money. Even the owners of the brothel she worked in left without any intimation prior to the lockdown, leaving her and other sex workers who were unable to leave at their own devices.
“We have very little food left which we are dividing among us and surviving somehow. I do not have enough milk to feed my baby, she said. We know we are outcasts in Indian society but even we are humans. If the government does not save us, we would starve. At least save our children.” she added.
Yet another sex worker, Satya, 35, was also stuck at a brothel. Though her 8-year-old son did not live in the brothel but with a relative in another town, Satya was unable to send him or the family any money due to the lockdown. She was also running out of cash.
If things continued this way, Satya felt that she and many others like her would have no option but to kill themselves and their children. “Death is better than starvation or coronavirus,” Satya said.
Having written to the CM on April 18 regarding these issues, activists and sex workers now wait for the government’s response and hope that their desperate pleas for help are met.