COVID-19: 5 lakh sex workers in WB struggle to survive

Nearly five lakh sex workers in West Bengal struggle to survive amid coronavirus outbreak

At least 10,000 sex workers of Sonagachi are unable to pay rent for their houses

(DH photo)

The novel coronavirus outbreak has taken a toll on the livelihood of nearly five lakh sex-workers in West Bengal, including those residing at Kolkata’s Sonagachi, the largest red-light district in south Asia. Ever since the outbreak made its presence felt in the state, the flow of customers has dried out.

Speaking to DH over phone Kajol Bose, secretary of Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, the largest organisation of sex workers in West Bengal, sounded a bit disoriented. The sex workers of Sonagachi, who were able to contain the spread of HIV in the area, have become helpless in the face of the novel coronavirus outbreak.

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“We don’t know how to deal with this situation. Customers have stopped coming due to panic and the lockdown has made it even more difficult for sex workers,” said Bose.

At least 10,000 sex workers of Sonagachi are unable to pay rent for their houses. Most of these workers are the only earning member in their families and are struggling to sustain them.

Bose said that for now, they have been able to convince concerned landlords not to collect rent for a month. “But we are not sure how long this can continue,” she said. The rent at Sonagachi varies from Rs. 5000 to Rs. 60,000.

One of them pointed out that the nature of their work is such that avoiding direct contact is impossible, making the use of masks irrelevant for them.

Recalling the financial struggle during demonstration, she said that it was nothing compared to the hardships they are currently facing following the novel coronavirus outbreak.

“Our savings are quickly running out. If this goes on for long, we will not be able to survive,” she said.

Bose said that Durbar has reached out to the state government urging it to provide financial aid to sex workers. The organisation has also written to several MLAs and MPs.

“But we are yet to receive any response,” said Bose.

Touts in these red-light areas are also struggling to earn their livelihood. However, there is no opposition from the sex workers of Sonagachi against the nationwide lockdown.

“We are not opposing the lockdown but we have to survive,” said a sex worker of Sonagachi before her voice choked with tears.

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