With their source of livelihood coming to an abrupt halt due to the Covid-19 pandemic, sex workers of Amalner city in Jalgaon district have begun exploring alternative livelihood options, including setting up their own small-scale businesses. While several organisations have helped them by supplying rations, groceries and sanitation material during the initial phases of the lockdown, lack of a regular source of income and mounting debts have forced these women to find a more permanent way to come out of the crisis.
One of them is Hasina (name changed), a commercial sex worker (CSW) who used to work with fabrics as a side job.
“I wanted to break free from the shackles of sex work and cultural bias. I used to sell fabrics on the side in my locality even before the pandemic. But during this pandemic, everything changed. I was stranded with no income as demand for sex work dropped,” she said.
Now, Hasina plans to take a loan, sell clothes full time and become an entrepreneur.
Meanwhile, Rosie (name changed), another CSW from the region, said she was interested in becoming a retailer of centering plates, which are used in the construction of buildings.
Like Hasina and Rosie, several women from the red light area of Gandhali Pura in Amalner are taking steps towards finding alternative and sustainable sources of income.
Helping them in this mission is a local NGO, Aadhar Bahuudeshiya Sanstha, which works for the empowerment of marginalised communities.
The Sanstha provides the required support by training sex workers with employable skills and is in the process of helping them set up business models.
“Our NGO had started working with the sex workers of Amalner back in 2003, under the HIV project initiative. The pandemic has not only left the women without any work for months, they are also struggling with debts…,” said Bharati Patil, founder of Aadhar Bahuudeshiya Sanstha.
“Sex workers in Amalner belong to a community wherein the occupation is carried forward from mothers to their daughters. While our NGO has helped these women to rehabilitate, educate their children and tackle health issues such as anemia and addiction, the societal stigma makes it more difficult for them to overcome existing challenges…,” she said.
Of the 300 sex workers associated with Aadhar in Amalner, nearly 30 per cent have approached the NGO to seek its support to turn their lives around. “These are generally women who are above the age of 40 and they now wish to move away from sex work. For now, we have started a pilot project with five sex workers. Subsequently, we want to help more women find alternative ways to earn a living, as the situation is grim here. Whether they choose to stick to the trade or make a transition, we are trying to provide the support,” said Patil.
Apart from financial help, Patil said the women also needed other forms of assistance in their rehabilitation process. “For now, the women are working within the four walls of their house. With the help of financial backing from philanthropists and local bodies, we are hoping to upscale their skills. The NGO is also seeking to help the women adjust to their new ventures as the taint around the occupation is an impediment in the way of their transition,” she said.