“During the lockdown, and even now, clients are not willing to come to us. We know it is not safe for us also.” Bindhu, Pathanamthitta
Sex workers were in trouble when the COVID19 lockdown was announced in Kerala in March. Now, even four months on, the situation has not become normal.“There are restrictions of social distancing, travel restrictions as well as working restrictions. This has impacted our life. Our work has come to a complete standstill,” say sex workers.
“Clients are not coming to us and we also have a fear of being affected by Covid19. As a network, it is at these times that we have understood the importance of being organised. In 2019 and 2018, we were threatened by the floods. At that time, we stood strong and supported each other,” say members of the Kerala Network of Sex Workers (KNSW), a collective of sex worker CBOs in Kerala formed in 2014.
Working in eight districts with 10 CBOs, KNSW partners include MaithriPattom in Thiruvananthapuram: Punarjani in Pathanamthitta; Santhwanatheeram in Alappuzha; Snehitha in Kottayam; SHREE Vandiperiyar and ARSHA in Idukki; Swaruma and Swantham in Ernakulam; Sangamithra in Thrissur and Vanitha Society in Kozhikode.
Right from the start, KNSW board members and member CBOs were in continuous touch with sex workers, extending much-needed awareness at the local level about the risks of Covid19 and how it spreads. “We focused on the importance of social distancing, hand washing, and hygiene, the importance of wearing masks, etc. We repeatedly gave this message to the members as much possible in person, through phone calls and other available media.
Support and solidarity
The need for collectivisation and solidarity has never been more acute. Welfare activities and support of the KNSW and NNSW (of which KNSW is a member) helped sex workers to stand on their own feet during the most difficult times.“We took care of sex workers, especially those who are on the streets, away from home and homeless. We bring them back to their homes and others to the shelter homes run by the Social Welfare Department of the State. We were concerned about their health but we managed,” says Shyamala John, NNSW Joint Secretary.
“Self-organisation among sex workers gives us strength. No one will speak out for us; we are our own voice. Sex workers provide sexual services to their clients and we strongly believe sex work is a dignified work. We demand all the rights of a worker class,” says members of KNSW, highlighting the focus on sex work as work at a time when labour itself is under siege.
Skill-building to resolve challenges and the strong backbone provided by NNSW has helped individual members face very difficult situations with the help of collectives. “We are concerned about street-based sex workers, since they are away from their families. We reached out immediately to take care of them. Some of them went back to own home and we arranged for others to stay in Covid-care shelter homes run by the government,” says the KNSW. Efforts to this end were made in Kottayam, Thrissur and Kozhikode.
Effective liaison with the government and political parties to access welfare was an important role played by the KNSW. “When the lockdown was active, sex workers got support from the government in the form of food kits. We also acquired some support from other local NGOs and organisations. We ensured ART medicine for our PLHIV sex workers through the volunteers from sex workers and TI Programme staff state-wide,” says Lalitha Satheesan, NNSW Board Member.
“I am a sex worker living with HIV since the last 16 years. I have no ration card and the free ration kits were distributed by the Government only those who having the ration cards. This issue came to the notice ofJijimol, board member of the KNSW and she presented it to the authorities. It helped me to get the ration kits. Some NGOs also came forward to help me in this response,” says Vineetha from Alappuzha. With the support of KNSW board member Lekha, food kits and financial support was accessed from Marthoma Sabha.
Following the lockdown and the severe impact on their work, sex workers are now looking at an acute lack of an income and empty pockets. Advocacy is ongoing with the government to access welfare measures for sex workers.
Given its extensive network and contacts with authorities, other help was also extended. For instance, in Alappuzha, a member’s pregnant daughter was stuck in Tamil Nadu when the lockdown was announced and could not travel due to stringent restrictions. “My daughter was pregnant and her delivery date was also near. I spoke with the KNSW board member Jijimol in Alappuzha. She contacted the District Collector’s office. They contacted the authorities in Tamil Nadu and took the necessary steps like taking a Covidtest. They brought her to the border at Valayar Palakkad from where we picked her in our vehicle. She and her baby are now doing well. I am very happy with KNSW for their support,” says Sandhya, Cherthala Alappuzha
In Pathanamthitta, sex workers started making cloth face masks and sold them to Self Help Groups. They purchased bulk quantities of sanitizer and sold it in retail in smaller quantities. They also received interest free loans from Kudumbashree Mission.
Some sex workers have even pawned their jewellery to raise funds for supportive livelihood initiatives. Discussions are ongoing among sex workers to find alternative and supplementary sources of income.