COVID crisis: Rehabilitating ailing sex workers a challenge; state govts need to come up with robust strategy

By Babulal Marandi

Seven months into the pandemic and with the impracticality of maintaining social distancing in their work, sex workers have been eking out a living by exhausting their paltry savings and borrowing money.

With declining demand for flesh trade, rents overdue and debts to pay with the meagre savings left, sex workers want to opt out of sex trade but they are facing a dead-end with no alternative route to sustain their livelihoods. If governments do not act immediately then they will be forced to restart sex-work, out of helplessness, risking their lives.

NGOs here have been actively helping these women by distributing food packets and medical aids, as part of COVID-19 relief measures. However, these are just temporary responses to put out the smoke before the fire. The state government needs to look at the larger picture — given that sex trade cannot thrive as we have to live with the virus henceforth, how can they empower and enable these sex workers with alternate livelihood options in the new normal?

Trafficking, sexual violence and exploitation: Their life saga continues…

Most of the sex workers operating out of the red-light areas are victims of sex trafficking and forced prostitution. Jharkhand is a major hub of trafficking and according to the latest National Crime Records Bureau data, 80 percent of the trafficked victims were girls in 2019. This brings us to the issue that’s ongoing in the state for decades. Jharkhand being the source and transit hub for sex trafficking, majority of the activity takes place in the poverty-stricken and Naxal-affected tribal villages of Khunti, Gumlah, Garwah, Kodarma and Lohardagga districts. Apart from high levels of poverty, unemployment and illiteracy, it is the prevalence of Naxals in these villages that affect them. Locals always look for some way to get out of the village to earn a living. This makes it easy for traffickers to lure adolescent children and women for jobs and studies.

Most of the women and girls are trafficked to Delhi from Jharkhand. Hundreds of minor girls are smuggled from Jharkhand and sold in far-off regions like Delhi. Some might be taken to Maharashtra and West Bengal, which are again infamous for their thriving zones of sex trade. In such a scenario, it is not enough to just combat the issue and provide alternative options for sex workers in Jharkhand. It is pertinent to look at other places like Delhi, Maharashtra and West Bengal where these women and girls might have been transported and sold off.

Leveraging power for good

This can be achieved only if Jharkhand partners with other states, especially the Delhi government to start with, and works towards helping these exploited and marginalised women with alternative livelihood options.

At present, there is no unified data that traces the origin states of trafficked victims. They get sold off in the metros. Jharkhand government should work with their counterparts in Maharashtra (which recorded the highest trafficking cases in 2019), Delhi and West Bengal to integrate their anti-trafficking efforts and create a comprehensive database of victims of sex trafficking. This will help us find women from Jharkhand who are forced into prostitution in other states.

Meanwhile, rehabilitation tasks must be started. Considering the fact that many trafficked women from the state are stuck in metro cities, the state needs to come up with a comprehensive plan for rehabilitation. The state should also join hands with other state governments in this effort.

Starting with skilling:

Sex workers can be initiated into basic education and training. For instance, every state has enough resources under their skilling programmes. The work needs to be done in streamlining the funds and strategy for rehabilitation of sex workers into the society under the programmes. States can create a sub-section under the Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana (PMKVY) for sex workers, where they can train the women in vocational skills that are economically viable. State-led programmes like Jharkhand’s Tejaswini Yojana for girls and young women, Maharashtra’s Skill Sakhi or Delhi’s central scheme of Support to Training and Employment Programme for Women (STEP) or West Bengal’s Swawalamban Scheme should include sex workers under the umbrella projects to skill them in market-driven skills. This also will lead to sex workers wanting to turn into entrepreneurs and setting up their own businesses which will be an empowering move. With such available platforms, Jharkhand does not have to create an entire module but with an effective partnership, it can help sex workers find a dignified way to earn a living and help those who want to get back to their own state securedly.

I also urge that the central government must facilitate smooth partnerships between states in order to free sex workers from inhuman conditions.

Fighting the COVID battle by helping sex workers

During the public health crisis witnessed in the pandemic, several corporates and philanthropies stepped forward to help the government fight the COVID battle. Reintegration of sex workers, too, is part of that battle. This is where we will require contribution from philanthropy foundations.

Philanthropists and CSR wings need to participate by providing industry guidance and the corporate network which the government can utilise for fetching jobs for the women once their training stages are over.

The state governments need to take a dipstick approach towards this issue and come up with strategies to join hands with the philanthropists. Another approach is to fix a percentage of the COVID donations for this cause. Jharkhand, in collaboration with other states, can develop a corpus to strengthen the financial aid for such a programme. Strategic financial planning backed up with expertise from civil society will ensure a smooth execution if essential steps are taken immediately.

NGOs, philanthropists, state governments, and corporates need to come together to help sex workers find alternate livelihood options and free victims of trafficking from the horrors of forced prostitution. Such a partnership will not only give these marginalised women a new lease of life but also a chance to return to their homes they have yearned for all these years.

-Author is a Leader, BJP Legislative Party, Jharkhand

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