By Our Special Correspondent
PUNE—A big majority of the commercial sex workers (CSW) operating from the Budhwar Peth in the city have expressed their desire to quit the flesh trade business and explore alternative sources of livelihood.
They expressed their desire during a survey conducted by Asha Care Trust that has been working among the sex workers for over two decades.
Their willingness to say a goodbye to the flesh trade is owing to two reasons. One; their income going down to almost zero due to Covid and exploitation by owners and managers of the brothel operators.
Income of sex workers not sufficient to support families
As many as 87 per cent of the sex workers told the survey team that even before the Covid pandemic struck, their income was not sufficient to support themselves or their families. The key factor that made them to earn their livelihood through flesh trade and remain trapped in vicious circle, was the lack of education and employable skills.
“Majority of the CSWs now want to explore alternative sources of livelihood and get away from flesh trade”, says the survey. Delving deeper into their plight, the report points out that most of the CSWs fear resuming the trade after the pandemic is over.
The report says that their income came to a screeching halt with the onset of COVID-19 pandemic, leading to drying up of their cash reserves and daily income by way of servicing the clients. “Over 99% of commercial sex workers (CSW) are now wanting to take up alternative livelihood options, if given an opportunity. Over the period of lockdown, the demand for sex work has dried down forcing sex workers to borrow loans for survival”, the report says.
Fear Resuming Sex Work Even After the Pandemic Is Over
According to the survey, 92.7 per cent fear resuming sex work even after the pandemic is over but they are also concerned with the fear of starvation as they are not skilled to earn their livelihood through other sources. Harassment from brothel managers has led them to worry about their daily bread and butter. “While 68 per cent believe that the sex trade will pick up in the days to come, 99 per cent say they will take up any alternative livelihood option if given an opportunity”, the report says.
According to the report, 82 per cent of the workers fall in the age group of 25 to 45 years. Some of them were forced into the trade when they were minor. Over 84 per cent of the sex workers have not had any formal education and the rest 16 per cent were pushed into the flesh trade even before they finished high school.
The sample survey conducted by the trust says that over 85 per cent of the workers have taken loans and over 98 per cent of them have taken it from their brothel owners, managers and moneylenders, subjecting themselves to further exploitation. Budhwar Peth area, which is Pune’s largest and only red light area, is India’s third-largest of its kind in the country and houses nearly 700 brothels and around 3,000 commercial sex workers. The study covered only 300 of them, that is, 10 per cent of CSWs in Budhwar Peth.
Reiterating the need for alternate livelihood during the Covid time, one of the sex workers, Nilu, said, “We have been facing lot of hardships for the last 4-5 months. With each passing day, it is getting difficult for us to survive as we have no earnings and hardly any savings. All of us here are bound to start the business as we have no other means of livelihood. Given an opportunity, I would like to opt for alternate livelihood so that I have a better source of income to sustain myself and my children.”
“COVID-19 pandemic has presented us with an opportunity to create a mechanism to rehabilitate sex workers in the mainstream society. Our survey suggests almost all of them are looking at alternative sources of livelihood in Budhwar Peth region. For the women who opt out of sex trade, trafficking victim relief fund should be provided to help them pay-off their debt and get started with a new chapter,” says trust founder Sheela Shetty.
Speaking to India Tomorrow, Shetty said, “We have requested the state government to financially support the CSW’s and we are also in the process of starting skill development programmes to ensure that they earn a decent living’.
Pune Mayor Muralidhar Mohol told India Tomorrow, “It is a very serious issue and we as a civic body will look into their demands. COVID-19 and its impact has wrecked the economy and has disturbed the livelihood of the CSW’s. We will ensure that their demands are met and skill development programmes are carried out for their benefit and economic development”.
Extending support to the initiative, one of the representatives of Freedom Firm, a local NGO that works in the area added, “This initiative is a positive thing. The redlight area in Pune, consists of 500 plus brothels which could not have been evolved over night. It is high time that the authorities and NGOs should view this unprecedented time as an opportunity to act quickly for providing alternative livelihood to sex workers who have faced a lot hardships already. I hope this initiative gets support from the government and NGOs as well and brings lasting impact.”
A delegation led by Asha Care Trust along with representatives of other organisations like Shailesh Badhai from Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav Samiti, Yogesh Bhokre of Maharashtra Itak Kamgar Sangathana, social worker Pratibha Shinde, Fayyaz Sheikh of Pune Jilha Grahak Sanrakshan Samiti, Bhola Vanjale and Advocate Vidya Pedankar met the Mayor Muralidhar Mohol and submitted the report, demanding the corporation’s intervention to arrange for training and skill development for CSWs to make them employable in other trades and businesses.
Shetty stated, “The mayor has given a positive response. We are very hopeful that the district administration will help us in this regard. A meeting has been scheduled in next week with district administration officials”.