India’s urban sex workers and COVID-19

On March 22nd, 2020, communities throughout India bore witness to an unprecedented announcement: a complete nationwide lockdown to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly overnight, a country in which nearly 70 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day lost more than 4 million jobs. 

Many suddenly faced an awful choice between livelihood and health. It became quickly apparent that safety was a ‘privilege’ reserved for the rich, since a majority of Indians must work every day in order to be able to feed themselves and their families. As a result, the informal work sector has pushed a vocal and much-needed discussion of these issues onto the national stage.

But there is a sector of the workforce that remains all but invisible – India’s estimated 657,800 sex workers. From Mumbai’s Kamathipura area to Delhi’s GB Road and Kolkata’s Sonagachi district, women and transgender sex workers today are losing their homes, jobs and only source of income during the pandemic. For a community that has been historically ostracized, the novel coronavirus has meant India’s sex workers find themselves in an even more difficult situation.

Kothis in the red-light district of Delhi at Garstin Bastion Road. Photo: Wikimedia.

In India, many sex workers sleep and eat in kothis (bungalows) with more than 20 people crammed into a single room with one lavatory at the end of their dhanda (business day). How are sex workers expected to follow the new requirements for ‘social distancing’ in a profession that is based on contact? With business down and no support from government, sex workers in India are stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Governed by India’s Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act of 1956, the legal status of sex-workers has been a matter of contention for decades. The legislation has been regarded as inherently regressive and contradictory. With the name of the Act based on a social judgment – ‘immoral’, it  presupposes that sex work is only a coercive process. With a patriarchal and privileged method of rehabilitation, it considers “prostitution as exploitation” and requires there to be a family ‘custodian’ of a rescued adult sex worker, neglecting his or her right to have authority over his or her own life. In addition, public-health specialists have linked the increase of untraceable HIV/AIDS to the hidden sex trade, because the Act forces many underground.

“Just think about it. Why can’t people look at sex-workers just like they look at a teacher, a rickshaw driver or a cleaner in India?” asked Kusum, President of the All-India Network of Sex Workers.

In early April 2020, the Global Network of Sex Work Projects and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS outlined the added hardships that the pandemic has brought upon sex workers around the world. They urged countries to fulfil its human rights obligations towards this community as much as for the rest of their working populations. Their admonition was ignored in India.

Four days after the announcement of the India-wide COVID-19 lockdown, the national government allocated a $22.5 billion relief package to the people most affected by the pandemic. “We’ve come up with a package which will immediately take care of the welfare concerns of the poor and the suffering workers,” said Nirmala Sitharaman, India’s Finance Minister. Specific relief was announced for economically marginalized women, including widows, but sex-workers were not included.

“When regular customers come to help us financially –with whatever little they can– for us to buy some food at least, police beat them unnecessarily,” Sudha, a sex-worker from the red-light district of Delhi, told a journalist with The Quint.

With many clients now out-of-work, sex workers in India are frantically looking for new sources of income. Independent NGOs such as Kranti or Karwan-e-Mohabbat distribute basic resources to the community, but such donations simply do not provide enough relief for more than half-million sex workers and their families. 

“The government has not helped us at all. I have to pay rent, my kids’ school tuition, and for food. The only help we get is through some NGOs. How do we survive? Have we just been left to die here?” These were the questions on the mind of one sex worker in the red-light area of Mumbai.

While workers around India slowly regain their rhythm even as COVID-19 infections soar, it won’t be as simple for sex workers. But amid illness and economic collapse, sex workers are seeking a way forward. “I feel empowered with what I do. It was an economical and personal choice,” said Ayeesha Rai, a sex worker from West Bengal, a member of the National Network of Sex Workers, India, in an interview earlier this month.

India is a country that traditionally –as in the Kamasutra– saw sex work as a noble and powerful profession. But as Indian society increasingly fights for human/women/LGBTQI+ rights, many of those participating in one of its oldest and most marginalized trades are left on the margins of debate and discussion.

This pandemic, in its own way, has brought a number of socio-economic issues to the fore, in India and beyond. Disparities have become more apparent and discrimination more blatant. In response, sex workers in the red-light districts have been compelled to come forward to seek survival, and their rightful status as legal workers in India.  

This article is the seventh produced in collaboration between Toward Freedom and the Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts in Pune, Maharashtra, India. For more information, contact Barry Rodrigue <> at Symbiosis International University.  

Author Bio

Oishika Neogi graduated from the Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts with a major in International Relations and a minor in Law, Oishika Neogi is enrolled for an MA in Conflict and Security Studies, International Affairs at The New School, Manhattan, New York in Fall 2021. She is currently a Research Fellow at Karwan-e-Mohabbat, Centre for Equity Studies, in Delhi.