India, September, 2020: Durbar MahilaSamanwaya Committee (DMSC), the country’s oldest sex workers’ collective had moved the Supreme Court to highlight the destitution faced by sex workers on the account of COVID-19, and requested for relief measures for over 9 lakh female and transgender sex workers across the country.On hearing the PIL that highlighted the plight and distress condition of sex workers, the Supreme Courturged the Centre and State Government to urgently consider providing them reliefin the form of dry rations, monetary assistance as well as masks, soaps and sanitizers without insisting on proof of identity.
Appealing to the Supreme Court, which has held that:-“sex workers have a right to live with dignity under Article 21 of the Constitution of India since they are also human beings and their problems need to be addressed”, the Kolkata based group highlighted that sex workers’ have been left out of the COVID-19 response because of social stigma and marginalisation and are in frantic need of support.
DMSC consulted and received inputs from various Community Based Organisations and NGOs working with sex workers across the country (Annexure 1). Many of these organisations have conducted community led research and surveys to understand the conditions of sex workers before and during the Covid-19 pandemic. The application cites a 5-state assessment undertaken by Taaras, a coalition of women in sex work and their organizations among 1,19,950 sex workers to draw attention to the challenges of the community in accessing critical services during the COVID-19, which included:-
- Lack of access to social protection services: Sex workers do not have access to social protection measures such as pension, health benefits and labour rights. The five-state consultation shows that only 5% of sex workers had received a bank transfer of Rs 1000/- on the basis of a Labour Card for registered workers. Barring Tamil Nadu, where CBOs have managed to obtain labour cards for sex workers by enrolling them as domestic workers, vegetable vendors, street hawkers etc., no other State has extended this facility to persons engaged in sex work.
- Lack of access to essential services: Around 48%members did not receive ration through PDS (Public Distribution System). Out of 26,527 members who reported illness, around 97% (25,699) are unable to access primary care services – both public and private. 20% of members have children attending private schools and of them, 95% (23,425) are not able to pay the schools fees. Of the approximate 61% of members who live in rental housing, 83% are unable to pay rent and electricity bills.
- Impact on livelihood: Almost71 % (81,433) members don’t have any other source of income to meet their essential day to day needs. Even those who have some income are having difficulty in securing three meals a day for the past four months.
DMSC’s application pointed out that a large number of sex workers have been excluded from aid measures due to lack of, or deficiencies in their identity documents such as Aadhar and Ration cards. This, despite the fact that the Supreme Court had directed the Central and State Governments to ensure access to ration cards, voters identity cards and bank accounts, based on recommendations of a Court-appointed Panel in 2011 looking into rehabilitation and empowerment of sex workers.
The Application suggested the following reliefs:-
- Provide sex workers with relief, till the continuation of the Covid-19 pandemic, in terms of monthly dry rations, cash transfer to the tune of Rs. 5000 per month, additional cash transfer to the tune of Rs 2500 for those with school-going children, Covid-19 prevention measures such as masks, soaps, medicines and sanitizers delivered through Targeted Intervention Projects/ State AIDS Control Societies and Community Based Organizations
- Direct coordination and monitoring of Covid-19 relief efforts at the Centre and State levels through committees comprising representatives of health and social justice/welfare departments, the National Legal Services Authority and the State Legal Services Authorities as well as Community Based Organisations
- Direct the State Labour Departments and the Unorganized Workers Social Security Board to register sex workers and provide them social welfare measures that all unorganized workers are entitled to
The National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India estimates that there are over 8.68 lakh female sex workers in the country and 62,137 Hijra/transgender persons in 17 states, of which, 62% are engaged in sex work. The PIL is aimedat bringing light to absolute impoverishment and destitution that sex workers in the country are facing on account of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Annexure 1:Names of all community-based organizations and NGOs consulted
All India Network of Sex Workers (Delhi), AasthaParivar (Mumbai), ApnaGhar Kalyan Sanstha (Agra), AshaDarpan (Mumbai), AshodayaSamithi (Mysore), Centre For Advocacy and Research (Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai and Jaipur), EktaSangathan (Vadodara), the Humsafar Trust (Mumbai), JyothiMahilaSangha (Bengaluru), KrantiMahilaSangha (Sholapur), MrignayniSevaSansthan (Ranchi), SahyogMahilaManadal (Surat), Sakhi (Bhadrak, Odisha), SakhiJyot (Ahmedabad), SarvodayaSamiti (Ajmer), Savera (Kushinagar, Uttar Pradesh), Swasti – Health Catalyst (Bengaluru), SwathiMahilaSangha (Bengaluru), Taaras Coalition of Women in Sex Work and 107 CBOs affiliated to it from 12 states, and VijayaMahilaSangha (Bengaluru).