Sex Workers, High-Risk For COVID-19, Seek Government Help

Kapil Kajal | Apr 16, 2020 | 14 min read


The wait for a customer for sex worker Reema (32), who didn’t want to reveal her second name, doesn’t seem to end. Yet another day passed where she ended up sitting idly by her doorstep at her 10x12 feet room in Kamathipura, a red-light area in Mumbai. For the tenth consecutive day, Reema didn’t entertain any customer. As the lockdown to curb COVID-19 pandemic halts daily life in the country, sex workers struggle to survive as customers dry up.


Reema was trafficked from West Bengal and forcefully into prostitution about eight years ago. She is a single mother of two daughters and fears that if she doesn’t get any customers, she and her children would starve to death. 


“I used to earn nearly Rs 1,000 per day but now I am not getting a single penny. I neither have savings nor do I know any other work. How will I feed my children? Where will I stay as I don’t have money left to pay the room rent as well,” Reema said. 


Like Reema, there are many who are involved in sex work in Kamathipura area, which is known as one of the largest red-light districts of Asia, who are struggling to make ends meet amid the pandemic. 


In Kamathipura, there are women of various age groups involved in sex work. The women are majorly trafficked from the rural parts of Maharashtra, Karnataka, West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand, while many of them are also from Bangladesh and Nepal. There are over 5,000 sex workers in Kamathipura according to media reports, but some social workers and NGOs estimate it to be around 20,000-25,000.


A lot of sex workers also have to deal with problems related to their health and hygiene, addiction to alcohol and tobacco, poverty, safety-related issues, abuse by brothel owners and social despair. The World Health Organization (WHO) said that globally, female sex workers are 13.5% more likely to be living with HIV/AIDS than other women of reproductive age, and in Asia, female sex workers are almost 30% more likely to be living with HIV/AIDS.


A study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) found that of the 6,648 participants in the study, 5010 (75.4%), 1499 (22.5%), and 139 (2.1%) work in the streets, homes and brothels respectively. 

S. No.


Variable Categories

Total Number

Percentage (%)


Age group (years)
































Scheduled Tribe










Education level






Primary education (classes I to V)





More than primary education





Marital status

Currently married




















Never married





Number of living children
















More than 2



Distribution of demographic characteristics of female sex workers, Source- NCBI Study


Healthcare crisis

The study highlighted that these women struggle against adverse conditions such as illiteracy, lower status in society, and less economic opportunities and are especially vulnerable to being infected by HIV/AIDS, as sex work may be one of the few economic options available for these women.


However, the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing lockdown has caused hardships they had not witnessed before. Another sex worker named Pinky (41), who didn’t want to reveal her second name, hails from Pune and is a resident of Kamathipura 4th lane for the last 20 years. She stated that she contracted HIV/AIDS two years ago and has to consult her doctor for regular check-ups. 


“I don't have money, what should I sell now to buy the medicines. I have no one in this world and this world gave me this disease. I don’t have the money to eat properly, where should I bring the money for medicines? I have never seen a situation like this before in my life,” she said.


She added that the government isn’t providing them with anything and requested Prime Minister Narendra Modi to help them. She said, “Everyone here is in huge distress as most of the sex workers can’t take care of their health and food due to the lockdown, while some who have families are unable to take care of their family. When men need sex, they come to us, but now when we need them, no one will even care if we are alive or dead. I request PM Modi to provide some help to us.” 


A 55-year-old sex worker (name withheld on request) who hails from Karnataka and lives in Kamathipura stated that she suffers from tuberculosis. On March 3, she started coughing up blood and needed medical attention. Her 19-year-old daughter who works with Kranti, an NGO helping children of sex workers of Kamathipura in Mumbai, stated that no hospital in Mumbai admitted her mother.


She stated that they can’t afford treatment in private hospitals, while government hospitals are refusing patients owing to the COVID-19 crisis. 


She added that most of the sex workers have some health ailments, and visit the hospitals nearby for medicines, but now they can’t even get medicines as all the establishments are closed. 


Dr H Paramesh, Chairman of the Lakeside Hospital and Education Trust, Bengaluru, stated that sex workers have to maintain social distancing, keep washing their hands and cough or sneeze in closed spaces, but the truth is that they can not afford social distancing.


Dr Paramesh said that in this case the government should come forward and help them, and provide them with safety equipment, testing and quarantine because even if one worker is tested positive, it will spread like wildfire. 


Hungry for days 

Not only in Mumbai, the sex workers in Sonagachi, a red-light district in Kolkata and touted to be the largest in Asia, are facing testing times. A United Nations report estimate that there are around 10,000 workers in Sonagachi and Kalighat, another red-light area. The lockdown has caused the customer demand to diminish from an earlier average of 15,000-18,000 and with their daily wages brought to a halt, the women and their children were left starving and helpless.


Dr Paramesh stated that the nutrition levels of the sex workers should be maintained. The WHO says that a single person needs Rs 200 per day to get proper food with adequate nutritional value so that Rs 200 per day help must be provided to them, he added.


Rekha Das, a sex worker who stays in Kalighat, said that she doesn’t receive any customers and thus, doesn’t have any food to feed herself. Another sex worker Farida Begum said that the lockdown left her without work, and she lost her shelter as well.  


The Banchhada community, known to be involved in sex work, operates from Neemuch, Mandsaur and Ratlam districts of Madhya Pradesh have also started facing livelihood crises. The movement of vehicles is closed owing to the lockdown, and customers fear infection while many sex workers are reluctant amid the pandemic. The women in the community are forced to do sex work for a livelihood, while the men sit at home. The women whose daily income would be Rs 3,000-5,000 haven’t been able to eat from the past several days. 

Naseem, who didn’t want to reveal her second name, a sex worker who has been in the trade for over 12 years, stated that a situation like this was unprecedented. “Starvation has hit us now, as due to coronavirus the customers are not coming to our dero (brothels) and we do not have any other work to do as well,” she added. 


Another sex worker Kiran, who didn’t want to reveal her second name, stated that even regular customers don’t come because of the fear of the police, as the checking is very tight while they refuse unknown customers out of fear of coronavirus.


Ashok Chauhan, a social worker and Banchhada community member, stated that even after the lockdown ends, strict monitoring needs to be carried out to prevent transmission.

 “Informal of the Informal Sector”


Soma Debnath, a program associate at Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, a Kolkata-based NGO, stated that the sex workers are in dire need of support. Since there are no customers, there is no income for these women, and it has brought them to the throes of starvation, she mentioned. 


While Urmi Basu, founder of a Kolkata-based NGO New Light, stated that these women have to pay their room rent, electricity charges, and there is very little scope for them to have savings while these are precarious living situations and during distress times like this, these communities are the worst affected.


Trina Talukdar, a member of Mumbai-based Kranti, stated that there are a lot of health issues within the sex workers community that need to be addressed immediately, but it is really impossible to get access to any healthcare service right now. 


She informed that a sex worker, Sonakshi, who was suffering from lung cancer for the last three months, succumbed to it on April 4 owing to the lack of healthcare. “We did not receive the death certificate as well, we had to go to four hospitals to get a death certificate and also we had to pay Rs 7,000 as bribe, just to get a death certificate,” she added.


She mentioned that ambulances also cost double now. It used to cost them Rs 4,000 earlier, and now they are taking Rs 8,000, which makes it more difficult for sex workers as they are not earning and have to usually support a family of 6-8 members. 


Trina added that, in Kamathipura brothels, nearly 25,000 sex workers and their children live in enclosed spaces, so they can’t afford social distancing as there are six to eight people living in a 10x12 feet room. At least 50 people use one bathroom in that area which does not have running water as well, so if they contract COVID-19, it will spread and there is no stopping it, she commented.


“I think that daily wage labourers are still covered under some social welfare schemes but there is no scheme for these sex workers at all, they are like the ‘informal of the informal sector’. They don’t exist for the government at all. If the government can’t do it for them, they should do it to prevent the pandemic from spreading because if it reaches the area, not only these 25,000 sex workers but also the entire city will be at stake,” Trina said.


Women commissions, govt don't think about them

When IndiaSpend tried to contact Maharashtra State Commission for Women (MSCW) helpline number, one of their executives directed IndiaSpend to the NGOs working with sex workers saying that they only deal with the mental health issues and not such issues.


The Chairperson of West Bengal Commission for Women, Mrs Leena Gangopadhyay, expressed that the commission cannot directly allocate any funds towards to the sex workers unless instructed to do so by the higher state authorities and the social welfare commission. However, she did say that the government has been trying to alleviate distresses in these communities. 


Speaking to IndiaSpend, Yashomati Chandrakant Thakur, Minister of Women and Child Development Department, Maharashtra, took cognisance of the issue and stated that she would talk to Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray and will provide food and sanitation services to them.


Rekha Sharma, Chairperson, National Commission for Women (NCW), told IndiaSpend, “Frankly speaking, I have not still done anything for this but we will surely do. We will be taking it up with the police and authorities, mainly we will talk to the District Magistrate of the place where they live and will take their complaints forward.” 


NGOs come to the rescue 

While the government is still not seen and just thinking of taking the steps, the group of NGOs have already started working for the sex workers. The Jimme Foundation, an LGBTQIA+ rights group, had launched a fundraising appeal with the organisation named as Citizens for Justice and Peace, an anti-hunger NGO, for Mumbai sex workers community.


Harish Iyer, founder of the Jimme Foundation, told IndiaSpend that sex workers all over India whether it is Delhi, Mumbai or Kolkata, they rely on daily wages.


“So what is happening is that in this epidemic, you are not supposed to make close contact, so how do you have sex? So suddenly they ran out of money and their families are suffering because they don’t have anything to eat. They have an acute shortage of food this time, and society also doesn’t treat them well, so to give them emotional, psychological and financial help at this moment, we are doing all this,” Harish said.


He added that there are three organisations that are working together for this work, first is ‘Citizens for Justice and Peace’ which is raising the fund, the second is ‘Kranti’ which is distributing the ration in Kamathipura, and the third is ‘The Jimme Foundation’ which is coordinating between the two and ensuring that food delivery.


Bani Das, the co-founder of Kranti, said that they managed to give the ration to only 60-70 families while there are 2,000 families in Kamathipura and they will distribute more as these sex workers do not have any ration or healthcare. 


This community is completely forgotten by everyone and they live in a single 200 square feet hall where they live and cook food together with at least 7-8 families, so they are highly prone to COVID-19, Bani added. 


This has prompted NGOs and individual members in Kolkata also to help this community. Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee has asked for donations and distributed cooked food along with other essential items daily while New Light has also distributed over 250 food hampers which can feed a family of four people for two weeks. 


Kamlesh Rathod, Ratlam city president of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, said that after the lockdown was announced, there was a crisis of livelihood for the Bachchda community. 


He mentioned that they have started giving a regular one-time meal packet to each family and supplies for 10 days. An additional supply of ration will also be given as per requirement, he added.


In West Bengal, Minister of State for Women and Child Development and Social welfare, Dr Shashi Panja took part in distributing essentials to the sex workers of Sonagachi. She tweeted, “Our Didi(Mamata Banerjee, Chief Minister of West Bengal) has inspired and instructed us to look after those people who are in financial distress due to lockdown and unable to fend for themselves. Today dry rations and mask were distributed to 1,500 sex workers in my constituency.” 


While the other women commissions in the country have not even considered this as an issue but the Delhi Commission for Women (DCW) sensed the plight of sex workers and possible danger. The DCW has taken suo-moto cognizance of the 'inhuman conditions existing in the brothels situated at GB Road, a red-light area in Delhi'. The DCW sought information on the status of availability of food and personal hygiene materials in the area amid the COVID-19 pandemic.


Swati Maliwal, the chairperson of the DCW, stated in a notice written on April 2 that there is an acute shortage of food as well as personal hygiene material in these brothels, further these brothels are very enclosed spaces where over 2,000 women and children currently reside. 


This is a very serious matter wherein lives of thousand women are at stake and as such the threat of the spread of a pandemic becomes much worse in such confined spaces, therefore it is imperative that the adequate steps are taken in this regard urgently, added the letter.


Further, the chairperson asked information of the steps taken to enforce lockdown and social distancing measures in the area and status of availability of food and personal hygiene material in the area from the Deputy Commissioner of Police. 


(Inputs by Rahi Bhattacharjee from Kolkata and Vijit Rao Mahadik from Neemuch, Madhya Pradesh)


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