Kolkata sex workers: Real threat lies after the lockdown is lifted
Sex workers of Kolkata’s Sonagachhi and other red-light areas in West Bengal will confront their biggest threat of contracting the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) when the lockdown is lifted and customers start visiting their brothels again, medical specialists said.
The brothels are shut until the end of May -- a month beyond the end of April when an extended lockdown is expected to be lifted -- and relief materials in the form of rice, lentils and potatoes are being supplied to those who may be in need by government agencies, elected representatives and non-government organisations.
“Relief will stop coming once the lockdown is over. But it would be of great danger if the sex workers are allowed to operate as soon as the lockdown is lifted. Due to their nature of work and the congested way in which they live, one single case can infect a hundred,” said Smarajit Jana, a doctor and chief advisor of the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), the biggest NGO working with Bengal’s sex workers.
DMSC, which has about 65,000 members – all of them sex workers – spread across 50 red-light areas in the state, has launched a social media campaign to raise money so that sex workers can be supported even after the lockdown and avoid having to accept customers.
“The minimum house rent in Sonagachhi is Rs5,000 per month. Besides, most of the sex workers’ families depend on them. If we failed to make an arrangement for them for the month of May, they will start accepting clients and it could lead to a disaster,” said Bishakha, a sex worker based in Sonagachhi in Kolkata, Asia’s largest red-light area with about 11,000 sex workers.
On average, Sonagachhi draws 35,000 footfalls per day. Most houses in the area that function as brothels have 30-35 residents.
At Kalna in East Burdwan district, a local social organisation working for sex workers put up blockades at both entrances of the red-light area after some clients tried to enter the area last week.
“There would be huge crowds the moment the lockdown is lifted. It would be impossible for sex workers to identify people carrying the virus. And if they are not provided with some monetary relief apart from foodgrains, a section of them would accept clients and that would create a great risk,” said Mafizul Rahman of Aamra Padatik, an organisation that works with the children of sex workers based in Kalna.
He said the organisation had requested the police to ensure the area remains under lockdown until the end of May. “How the 450-odd sex workers living here would be provided for in May remains to be decided,” Rahman said.
Organisations working in the industrial towns of Burdwan and Asansol have taken similar decision of keeping the red-light area out of bounds for the clients of sex workers until the end of May.
“It depends a lot how much support we get from the governments, NGOs and social organisations. Without help, sex workers may not listen to us,” said Nilkamal, who works with sex workers in Durgapur. The red light area has about 800 active sex workers.
Chief minister Mamata Banerjee on Saturday asked the police commissioner of Kolkata to provide food to the sex workers and transgender communities in the city. Similar instructions were also issued to the Howrah police commissioner.
“I have asked Anuj Sharma, commissioner of Kolkata Police, to provide food to the sex workers, transgenders and the dwarf people in Kolkata. I have tried to help them as far as I could with volunteers. But police will have to see that they don’t face any problem,” Banerjee said.
A senior officer of Kolkata Police said they had already been providing food to all red-light areas and other underprivileged communities in the city.
“We will rope in the local NGOs, clubs and volunteers to provide food to the sex workers,” said an officer of Siliguri police station in north Bengal where the red-light area of Khalpara is home to more than 1,000 sex workers.