A campaign to keep men away from brothels has garnered over 700 signatures from local residents in Kamathipura. However, a prominent NGO working with commercial sex workers has criticised the residents’ campaign as being discriminatory and without any scientific basis.
Over 1,000 local residents had written to Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray and BMC Commissioner Iqbal Chahal last month fearing that “thousands of customers” would visit Kamathipura every day once the lockdown eased. “These customers will infect the entire area. These customers visit shops around the area and live in other parts of the city, they will infect the entire city… It will make Kamathipura a hotspot of coronavirus cases,” the letter stated.
Local Congress MLA Amin Patel and BJP municipal councillor Atul Shah said they were unaware of the issue as local residents had not approached them. “I will speak to the people who have written the letter and address their grievances,” Patel said.
The locals also cited a study released in June by the Harvard Medical School and the Yale School of Medicine which projected 4,00,000 Covid-19 infections and 12,000 among workers and residents in India’s red light areas in the space of a year if brothels are allowed to re-open.
At that time, 3,494 cases and 114 deaths were reported in red light district of Kamathipura, Grant Road, and Falkland Road.
The residents pleaded with the government to keep brothels shut, ensure that men did not visit sex workers and to provide relief and assistance to sex workers.
Local social activist Rukesh Girolla said that he did not receive any response to his letter. “We had also informed the police but they too did not take any action,” he said.
Locals and citizens’ groups began a poster drive during Ganesh Chaturthi. Over 250 posters stuck all over Kamathipura, including at Ganpati pandals, warned men against visiting brothels.
“The rest of Mumbai does not know that a lot of middle-class people also live in Kamathipura. We are all at risk if someone is infected at a brothel. We have also drafted a petition seeking to keep men away from brothels. So far over 700 people have signed the petition,” Girolla said.
Suresh Pabba, a social worker living in Kamathipura, said that along with the posters, he has also been spreading the message through WhatsApp and email.
“We have also been standing outside brothels and discouraging men from entering them. All we are saying is that until the situation is brought under control, no one should come here. But we cannot take the law into our own hands,” he said.
Priti Patkar, founder and executive secretary of Prerana, an NGO which works extensively with commercial sex workers in Kamathipura said that the campaign would only further stigmatise these women.
“I do not know what is the basis of the claim made by local residents. Is there any scientific backing to the claim that sex workers will spread Covid-19,” she said.
Patkar added that locals should have sat down and discussed solutions with sex workers instead of writing to the government.
“This kind of campaign is discriminatory and will only alienate sex workers further. It is easy to keep certain communities muted. Has anyone asked these women what they want or worked with them to find a solution and alternative means of livelihood? This is totally against the right to life,” she said.
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