COVID-19 pandemic has uncovered loopholes in the welfare system especially for marginalised communities like sex workers and it is also a chance to fix them.
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The Supreme Court of India has ordered that all sex workers be provided dry rations during the COVID-19 pandemic without insisting on identity documents. Sex workers all over the country are mobilising on the frontlines to seamlessly implement the order. The court is to provide its judgment on cash transfers to sex workers in the hearing on the 28 October.
There are over 1.5 million sex workers in India, and yet they continue to be one of the most marginalised populations in the country. The COVID-19 pandemic further pushed them to the fringes, with limited social protection. Many sex workers do not have basic identity documents to avail welfare measures by the government. As they often move from one place to another for work or because of eviction after disclosure of their identities, they do not have permanent addresses.
The Lawyers Collective, a human rights organisation based in Bangalore filed a case with the SC bringing to the attention of the Justice Nageshwara Rao bench about the plight of sex workers during the pandemic. The court ordered state governments and Union Territories to work with the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) and the District Legal Services Authorities (DLSA) to coordinate the distribution mechanism in the most privacy-compliant manner.
“In the hearing on the 28th, the court will take stock of the Central and state governments’ compliance to the order on ration distribution and based on the progress, take a call on subsistence allowance cash transfers for sex workers, said Tripti Tandon, Supreme Court lawyer and Deputy Director of the Lawyers Collective.
“The question of cash transfer is slightly more complicated because it requires people not just to be identified, but also to have bank accounts. Even if it is cash distribution, it depends on how successful states have been in reaching out to sex workers for ration,” said Tandon.
Sex workers in India are registered under the National AIDS Control Programme (NACP) by NACO. District level NGOs or sex worker Community-Based Organisations (CBOs) run Targeted Intervention Programmes under State AIDS Control Societies (SACS) to prevent and care for sexually transmitted infections and HIV.
However, a large proportion of sex workers are not registered in TIs to keep their identities undisclosed. To bridge the gap and leave no sex worker behind, the NACO has issued a standard operating protocol to all SACS to include unregistered sex workers by working with CBOs in the districts. The SOP suggests that in order to obtain relief, a sex worker should simply self-identify their status to either TI or non-TI organisations working with sex workers.
Prema, a sex worker from the Vadamalar Federation of Sex Workers has already begun calling meetings with sex workers in her locality.
“I have started collating lists of sex workers in Marthandam, in Kanyakumari district. Many women are living with their families, and have asked me not to reveal their identities publically. I have assured them that Vadamalar will vouch for them and that their names will not be shared outside the organisation,” says Prema.
Vadamalar Federation is an independently registered federation of seven CBOs in Tamil Nadu and is not associated with TI programmes.
The Supreme Court order comes after a six-month-long standstill in the lives of sex workers. The relief package announced by the Government of India for marginalised populations did not cover sex workers. Sex workers collectives and NGOs organised relief camps to provide dry rations, medicines and other essentials. They also coordinated with government departments in the states and districts to obtain emergency support.
“In Tamil Nadu, a generally dynamic bureaucracy has stepped up in this case. Most women we work with have increasingly managed to get support. Initially, we had problems like in every other state, but the government including the health department and especially the social welfare department with Madhumathi as its secretary has simply without question arranged for everything we have asked so far," says Dr Shyamala Nataraj, executive director of SIAAP, an NGO working with sex workers in Tamil Nadu.
However, sex workers faced a range of difficulties during the pandemic such as lack of nutritious food for themselves and their families, inability to pay rent, poor access to healthcare services, mental health issues and much more.
“Given the stigma and social prejudice against sex workers even the welfare and the charity systems are failing. As these factors come together it calls for an extraordinary response by the court during these times. Whether this response will sustain after this crisis dies down or it will just lapse because the extraordinary nature of this situation is resolved, one cannot say,” says Tripti.
“But, one hopes that through this experience of sex workers working with different state mechanisms beyond the HIV control programmes, such as district collectors, food and civil supplies, and others, it will pave way for a positive mainstreaming of sex workers,” she adds.
It is notable that the SC order is clear in its attempt to be more than a onetime relief measure. It points out that states and Union Territories need to provide ration cards and identity documents to all sex workers in the country as prescribed in 2016 by an expert panel mandated by the SC, in the aftermath of the Budhadev Karmaskar v State of West Bengal case.
“So far because the 2016 recommendations were not implemented the communities are in such dire straits. Right now the court has said that ration is distributed, but the panel had recommended that sex workers have access to ration cards. So, many sex workers are asking that if they are giving rations without cards, they should simultaneously initiate the process of issuing ration cards. Tomorrow if some other calamity occurs, they won’t be in a similar situation if they have ration cards in place,” says Tripti.
The COVID-19 pandemic has uncovered the loopholes in the welfare system especially for marginalised communities like sex workers. Statutory and judicial bodies like the Supreme Court and the National Human Right Commission recently have acknowledged their vulnerabilities and advised emergency responses.
Sex workers have been active participants in these processes articulating their experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic to these bodies. The court’s order gives complete liberty to sex workers to decide the modalities for the distribution of relief.
Therefore, precedence seems to be set for the way in which policy and programmes for sex workers need to be designed. The aim is to not only socially empower the community through welfare schemes but to include sex workers as agents of change by upholding the foundational principle of- ‘nothing about them, without them.’
The author is associated with an NGO called South India AIDS Action Programme (SIAAP) working with female sex workers in Tamil Nadu for their human rights and access to services and entitlements.