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'Covid-19 is Worse Than HIV': Left Penniless During Lockdown, Kolkata's Sex Workers Find Help

Sonagachi. (Photo: PTI)

Sonagachi. (Photo: PTI)

Thousands of sex workers in Kolkata have been left without an iota of income in light of the coronavirus outbreak.

For Vishakha Laskar, a sex worker living in Kolkata's Sonagachi, one of South Asia's largest red-light areas, the novel coronavirus outbreak feels worse than the time of the HIV outbreak. Laskar says that no one prepared them for the pandemonium the pandemic was about to unleash.

Thousands of sex workers in Kolkata have been left without income days after the coronavirus outbreak which has led to a nationwide lockdown.

Sonagachi, which once witnessed at least 15,000 to 20,000 clients every day, now stands abandoned. The red light area mainly comprises three extremely dingy lanes with houses on either side. On average, there are approximately 12,000 women living in the houses although a few of them managed to rush back home before the lockdown was imposed on March 24.

Representational photo. (Source: AP)

"Right now, there are approximately 7,000 girls who couldn't go back home and we're all stuck here together," says Kajal Bose, also a sex worker and the secretary of Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, a collective made for and by sex workers in Kolkata.

In India, at least 10 million women work as commercial prostitutes. Although it is illegal, flesh trade continues to thrive in the narrow lanes and corners of cities around the country.

Bose says that ever since news of the novel Covid-19 outbreak started doing the rounds, their business had been dwindling. "Customers didn't want to take the risk of getting infected and our girls were also scared. There is no way to know where a customer is coming from or if he's been exposed to coronavirus," she added.

However, following the outbreak, the sex workers at Sonagachi were trained by Dr. Smarajit Jana, the founder of Durbar, who has worked closely with the women in red light areas for decades now. For one week, girls were educated about how Covid-19 can spread, the symptoms, the benefits of using sanitisers and washing hands and so on.

In fact, till the lockdown was imposed, the women had implemented stringent rules which included making customers washing hands before and after their visit, a shower after each customer and ensuring that basic personal hygiene was maintained.

However, all that came to a standstill when the lockdown was declared by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in order to contain the virus.

"We've been completely locked inside since the lockdown. All 101 houses here are locked. Just before the lockdown, we had reached out to the government and other NGOs for help. We are daily wagers, whether we'll be able to eat at night depends on how much we earn throughout the day. What are we supposed to do now?" asked Bose.

Arjun Sengupta, a government employee working with the labour department, regularly visits his Union office which is located in Harkata Gali, another well-known red light area in North Kolkata. After the lockdown was announced, Sengupta says he knew that the sex workers would be the worst-hit in the pandemic. "The society won't even care to look at them," he says, emphasizing how sex workers have always been ostracized from the mainstream society.

Sengupta, along with his friends and colleagues, started a social media campaign with the help of his son to gather funds to help out sex workers. "Our campaign helped us acquire 1.5 lakh INR in 72 hours. Using that, we bought 400 kilograms of rice, 200 kilograms of potatoes and other essentials which we then distributed among the women," he says.

Photo: Facebook/Arjun Sengupta

Sengupta says that the women he met were living in miserable conditions. In a shocking revelation, he says that at present, at least ten to fifteen women were living in the same room together.

Globally, social distancing is being promoted as the only viable method to keep the virus at bay. Maintaining a minimum distance of six feet between two people is being called mandatory in most parts of the world. However, in the tiny houses of Sonagachi and Harkata Gali, scores of women are huddled together - living in fear of the pandemic that looms outside.

Dr. Jana, who has been working tirelessly to make things easier for the women of Durbar during the pandemic, says that the lockdown being extended is bound to make things worse. At this point, he says, gathering essential goods and making sure it reaches the women is his only agenda.

He also says that his organisation is trying to build their own quarantine centres as a precautionary measure in case one of the women show symptoms. In the upcoming days, he also hopes to be able to start testing independently.

Another initiative has been taken up by the Rotaract Club in Kolkata, in association with Durbar Mahila Samity, to crowdsource funds to help women living in red light areas. Bishal Modak, a member of the club, says that they have been trying their best to raise funds which can help Durbar buy essentials for the women during the crisis period.

Representational photo (Source: PTI)

Vishakha Laskar, who worked as a sex worker when she was younger, has been associated with Durbar since the 1990s. She says that she's been trying to speak to landlords at Sonagachi so that the rent is waived off for the women staying in leased houses there. Sonagachi, although a red light area, has some of the most expensive houses in the city. The rents for these houses start from Rs. 1000 and may even go up to Rs 1 lakh.

She also acknowledges how difficult it has been to get the children to stay indoors. In Sonagachi and other red light areas, women often reside with their children. However, the kids are not used to staying indoors especially in such crowded rooms. Unable to understand the seriousness of the pandemic, all they want to do is step outside and play.

Yet, Vishakha believes that all hope is not lost yet. "This problem is not specific to India, the whole world is suffering. We can stay indoors and hope for the best. We have to fight this together, otherwise no one will survive," she says.