Meet the woman who is a saviour for sex workers during the times of coronavirus. As the country has gone into lockdown for 21 days, the daily earnings of sex workers have taken a hit due to scarcity of customers. Many of them don’t even have the money to pay their rents, while there are some who are not aware enough to practice sanitization, social distancing and all necessary precautions to protect themselves from coronavirus. One woman is out on a mission to help these sex workers, Aanchal Narang.
SheThePeople.TV had a conversation with Aanchal Narang who has raised money to help the sex workers of Kamathipura, Maharashtra amidst COVID-19 lockdown. She also did a project work, titled “Community Mental Health,” with the sex workers and closely interacted with them to raise awareness regarding mental well-being. Narang runs a private practice in Andheri West as a psychologist with a specialisation in addiction, trauma, gender and sexuality.
Why was your focus on sex workers for your project “Community Mental Health”?
I was always interested in knowing their lives and hardships. I feel this is a population that is misunderstood and no one is there for them. Even in their own community, there is always a competition. I wanted to be there for people who no one thinks about.
I also believe they are an extremely marginalized population and often no one cares about their mental health. The organizations that work with them are regarding safe sex only. No one cares about their mental health and this is a population that endures trauma on a daily base. In one of my interviews with a sex worker, she spoke about having nightmares about sexual and physical abuse and said that is how it has always been, she did not think that having these dreams was problematic.
I feel this is a population that is misunderstood and no one is there for them. Even in their own community, there is always a competition.
Are sex workers in India legally and socially protected? What are your insights on this based on the ground reality?
No, they aren’t. Sex work in India isn’t illegal per se but everything that happens around sex work is illegal. Police officers often harass sex workers and arrest them. In fact, they would often fight to be posted in the sex work areas because they would get a huge sum of money as bribes. If a sex worker got caught by the police, the officers would take a bribe of around Rs 1200 from her. Whereas, she would make only 200 per customer since a part of the money would go to the pimp and gharwali (the landlady). Most sex workers don’t have any legal identification either. Socially they are discriminated for being a sex worker throughout their life. Ask yourself if you have ever spoken to sex workers or would you ever speak. If the answer is no, you know they aren’t protected.
Nirmala Sitharaman announced relief funds for the marginalized sections. How is that beneficial for sex workers?
I don’t think it will include sex workers at all. All the news I have read speaks about helping the older and poor people and daily wage workers but there has not been any mention of sex workers.
There are many contradictory views when it comes to the agency and freedom of sex workers. Some degrade sex workers as immoral and opposite of women empowerment as it exposes women to abuse and exploitation while others connect it with the freedom and agency of a woman to choose. What are your views on this?
Sex work is not immoral. But, it does expose women to abuse because of the fact that there are no supporting structures to help them. A sex worker can’t file an FIR against a client because no one will believe her, or will believe that she deserves it because she is a sex worker. People should have a choice of whether they want to be a sex worker or not. Unfortunately, most of these women don’t have any other choice than being a sex worker.
Tell us about the project. What was its aim and did you achieve what you intended to from it?
The aim was to map the mental health of the community and all the stakeholders involved. It was six of us, who did this project. We interviewed sex workers, their pimps and the nearby shop keepers. We made a plan on how we could support their mental health but never actually got to do it. Initially, this project was mainly to gain grades in college and I did not have enough people who wanted to work with me. Moreover, the sex workers themselves were reluctant to participate in the project.
But I didn’t want to be just another student who spoke to them for a project and then didn’t land up doing anything to help them. So, I started the fundraising to do something for them. I thought the least I could do was raise money to fund for their essentials during the lockdown. It has been almost a year and a half of that project and I see myself still thinking about them. The plan did not work out then but I am sure I will work on it again.
How are sex workers one of the worst-hit groups in the times of the coronavirus lockdown?
They are the worst-hit because they will lose their business. They won’t get any clients, not only till the lockdown but even after that. Why I say this is because when I was doing my project, one of the sex workers I interviewed said that during demonetization she did not have a single customer for weeks. She had to survive on one biscuit and water a day. This statement has stayed with me since then and made me raise fund to support them during the lockdown because this could be a repeat of the same problems and I didn’t want it to happen.
Considering the stigma around sex workers in India, is there any reluctance or ignorance from people towards helping or raising the funds for the sex workers?
Yes, I think the older people I approached were reluctant to donate. In fact, some people stated that they will individually donate but will not share the fundraiser posts on social media. While others said that even after they shared the post people made fun of them.
While many people have shifted to work from home options to keep their work going, how are sex workers grappling with the lockdown? In reference to the reports that sex workers have now moved to digital platforms by uploading videos and sexting while some are still taking risks and choosing customers on the basis of travel history.
Not true. The sex workers who earn 200 from a client have not moved to a digital platform because they don’t know the way around technology. And, most of them would have continued the sex work if they got a client. But, due to the lockdown and police surveillance that would not be possible either. Also to move their business online they would need a bank account. But, most of them do not have identification and address proof to open a bank account and so they won’t be able to accept money online.
Picture Credit: Aanchal Narang