Financial crisis and the resulting exploitation is the main reason why many women enter the sex trade and become dependent on it for economic sustenance. Besides, once they are in sex work, there is an increased vulnerability due to victimisation by the law enforcement agencies. This increases their risk of HIV and other health hazards. Due to the stigma that exist in the society against women in sex work, gay men, transgenders and injecting drug users, they have limited employment opportunities and are very often denied access to even the most basic entitlements.
The fear of not having enough work and thus not enough money to meet even the basic needs of survival drives people to take risks - even at the cost of acquiring a life- threatening infection, HIV. Against this reality, facilitating access to schemes and entitlements go a long way in enabling better decision-making and protection.
The central and state governments have initiated social protection schemes that cater to the needs of the poorest and marginalised, including women in sex work, gay men, transgender and injecting drug users. The National AIDS Control Programme in India has been focusing on improving the access of marginalised communities to several of the existing social protection schemes.
Efforts have been made to expand the eligibility criteria in existing schemes to include sex workers, gays, transgender and people living with HIV. There are also plans to launch exclusive schemes for them. The National AIDS Control Organisation launched an exclusive portal for the marginalised communities on December 1, 2015, to enable access to information on schemes across the country.
The first challenge is that most people are unaware of the schemes and benefits. The eligibility, procedure and contact department is different for each. Reaching the most marginalised requires individuals to have a variety of identification documents readily available. In reality, this is often not the case- birth certificates, income certificates, ration cards have either never existed or have been lost or are in their home towns. Obtaining each document itself takes time and effort, including understanding jurisdiction, the correct procedure etc.
This often becomes the biggest barrier since making it to government departments regularly mean lost income for the day. The other challenge is that of stigma and further exploitation. Their identities as women in sex work, gay men or transgenders often means they will be last in queue or have to make additional efforts.
India allocates huge resources for social protection through various schemes at the Centre and state. But, unfortunately, they are not yet reaching those who need it the most.
Shrirupa Sengupta is documentation and communication coordinator and P Bhoopathy is national social protection coordinator, Swasti.
The views expressed are personal