Last week, two Shramik Special trains from Kalyan ferried a 28-year-old commercial sex worker and 11 of her colleagues to Jharkhand. Under the control of their brothel owners and with no easy access to register themselves with the authorities to board the trains, the journey home was not an easy one for these 12 women who worked in the red light areas of Bhiwandi.
“We were unable to leave our homes and register with the police to board the trains. We earn enough only to be able to feed ourselves from one day to the next. After the lockdown, work came to a complete stop. There were no clients and we were also scared… what if someone whom we meet was infected?” the 28-year-old woman said over the phone from her home in Jharkhand.
“We were being provided ration but did not have the money to buy gas cylinders to cook,” she added.
Towards the end of May, the woman reached out to one of the networks that many like her rely on for medical assistance. Dr Yoga Nambiar, founder director of Global Rights Founder, working with groups including transgender persons, said: “Once the lockdown was imposed, we knew we had to reach out to transgender persons, who had lost their livelihood and also those who have HIV, who would continue to need assistance for their treatment. Through them, we also realised many sex workers were also stuck in Bhiwandi and were in need of ration. Subsequently, when the lockdown was extended, they wanted to go home.”
It was through Nambiar that the 28 year old and 11 others managed to board a train, arranged with the help of Pune-based NGO Mashal. Nambiar said the group of women had to be “rescued” from the brothel owners in coordination with the police.
“It was one of the happiest days of my life when I finally reached home on Thursday,” the 28 year old said. “I do not know whether I will return. Till the pandemic is here, how can we go back to working normally? Wearing a mask is not going to help us.”
Organisations working with commercial sex workers said that the women have been facing many issues since the lockdown. In Grant Road, some brothel owners had allegedly asked sex workers to vacate their rooms. They were subsequently helped by others within the community. Many others either do not have homes to go back to or feel that returning is not an option, since back home, there will be no source of income either.
Some with smartphones have switched to offering their services through audio and video calls as well as chats, and accepting online payments.
Seema Sayyed, manager of Aastha Parivaar, said many women have approached them for work in other fields. “They say that even when the lockdown ends, there will be an impact on their work since the fear of the pandemic will continue. They are making inquiries regarding working in packaging units or are asking us to look for similar options,” she said, adding that the gap created by the exodus of migrant workers employed in such units may be filled this way.
Sayyed, however, said that creating these linkages will be a challenge since these women remain stigmatised and may therefore not be able to reach out to authorities on their own for assistance.
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