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Sex workers in India on the verge of debt bondage and slavery, says a study

Between lockdowns and slow business, sex workers may be compelled to push the next generation into the trade

Written by Divya A | New Delhi | December 24, 2020 1:20:31 pm
sex workers, study, debt bondage, indianexpress, prostitutes, human trafficking, human trafficking policies, TALK,Since the commercial sex workers living in red light areas are deprived of bank accounts or identity proofs, they can’t access formal sources of credit. (Source: Express Photo by Partha Paul)

Over 90 per cent of commercial sex workers across three states will be pushed into permanent debt bondage by end of this year, reveals a new research. As mainstream prostitution came to a standstill earlier this year due to the pandemic, and their daily earnings dried out, the situation forced them to rely on loans from brothel owners and pimps, says the research, conducted by Beulah Shekhar, Emeritus Professor of Criminology at Karunya Institute of Technology Sciences (KITS) in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu.

The study says that these debts piled up and with no means to repay them in the near future, sex workers will be thrown into the shackles of debt bondage and sexual slavery for the rest of their lives. The exercise was meant to examine the financial exploitation the community has been facing in the aftermath of COVID-19, and was conducted in the red light areas of Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, Pune and Nagpur. Of the total 7.76 lakh sex workers in India, over 1.3 lakh are from Delhi, Maharashtra and West Bengal, according to National Aids Control Organisation.

“I started looking into the plight of sex workers as the community suffered a severe setback during the pandemic. That’s when I stumbled upon the problem of debt bondage they were grappling with. Further research into this issue revealed great concerns. A majority of sex workers are victims of trafficking, they were forced into prostitution, mostly at a very young age in their life. Their sufferings seem to have no end as now the debt bondage further victimises them,” explains Shekhar about the research. Nearly 174 people across five cities were interviewed for the report that will be published in the Indian journal of victimology and criminology next month.

In India, 95 per cent of the trafficked victims are forced into prostitution, shows data by National Crime Records Bureau. However, these numbers are just a fraction of the actual reality as sex traffickers work in a clandestine way, says Shekhar.

Since the commercial sex workers living in red light areas are deprived of bank accounts or identity proofs, they can’t access formal sources of credit. They have to borrow from informal sources like pimps and brothel operators. The study further says that if situations do not improve by March 2021, the debt amount can become an intergenerational bondage where sex workers might force their daughters too in sex work for repayment. The pimps and brothel managers use the debts as a coercive binding factor to intimidate and control them further.

“We are so desperate to earn money and pay our dues. Some of us are engaging with customers in this coronavirus time also. We know it’s risky but we have to pay rent, medical bills and other expenses. On top of it, we have to repay the existing debts,” says Kauvery (name changed) from Mumbai, who was among those interviewed.

Governments and UN bodies have consistently warned about this aftermath of the pandemic. In July, the Home Ministry issued an advisory to combat trafficking by mentioning preventive measures for children in families that suffered financial loss during the lockdown. It also urged states and districts to upgrade and strengthen anti-human trafficking units on urgent basis.

Though many migrant workers and daily-wagers chose to return to their hometowns, a lot of sex workers didn’t have that option. Several states like Maharashtra have been trying to help them with ration kits but that is also fraught with documentation issues. In October, the Maharashtra government issued a government resolution (GR) directing that Rs 5,000 and 5 kg dry ration will be provided as a monthly aid to sex workers following a Supreme Court directive. While no identity proof is needed to avail dry ration, to receive Rs 5,000 every month, sex workers must have bank accounts and Aadhaar cards.

sex workers, study, debt bondage, indianexpress, prostitutes, human trafficking, human trafficking policies, TALK, Though many migrant workers and daily-wagers chose to return to their hometowns, a lot of sex workers didn’t have that option. (Source: Express Photo by Partha Paul)

Priti Patkar, co-founder and director of the NGO Prerana Anti-Trafficking, Mumbai, says, “While there was relief in the form of food grains and utilities, this did not help the women with their rent and debt payments,” she said, adding that the government only provides for those who are able to produce ration cards.

Gitanjili Babbar, Founder of Delhi-based NGO Kat-Katha, which helps sex workers and their children on GB Road, says, “At GB Road especially, most women do not have savings and depend on their day-to-day earnings. In the absence of work during the pandemic, a lot of women resorted to informal sources of loans at high interest rates in order to sustain themselves and their families. The loan providers are often the owners of the brothel or the local moneylenders who exploit these women further into bondage. The customer’s paying capacity has reduced and business in general has seen a dip. In this context, it’ll be harder for women to pay back the loans and they are thus more vulnerable to debt traps than ever before.”

Adds Shekhar, “Unless action is taken to create a plan for alternative livelihoods for these women, the present movement of thousands of commercial sex workers into a state of indefinite bonded labour situation will become the single largest movement of human beings pushed into debt bondage and irreversible slavery in a span of few months.”

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