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Social Distancing and Sex Workers in India

Priyanka Tripathi ( teaches at and Chhandita Das ( is an Institute Fellow at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, Patna.

The deplorable condition of sex workers in India amidst the COVID-19 lockdown is discussed. Prostitution, now called sex work, has been a historical reality with cultural connotations. However, a significant amount of shame and stigma is attached to the profession wherein it is not even seen as work. Social distancing and the lockdown have left sex workers across the country in poverty and hunger. There is a need to address the issues of this section of the society from a human rights’ perspective.

With an intention to break the chain of the novel coronavirus spread in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the “Janata Curfew” on 22 March 2020, coupled with a complete nationwide lockdown from 24 March 2020. Even though the nation is in the unlocking phase now, the lockdown in India has disproportionately affected various sections/classes of the society.

While the comparatively rich and privileged class can afford to be locked down, it is primarily the poor and the vulnerable that have been driven by the distress of survival. Diseases and disasters may not differentiate much while infecting human bodies, but the uneven social structures do render non-uniformity of pandemic impacts upon people, and this has already been witnessed in the recent past during epidemics across developing nations, like the crises of Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) in 1999, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003, the Ebola outbreak in 2014, the major spread of Zika in 2016, and others. The present pandemic of COVID-19, particularly in India, allows a revisiting of those grim realities where the poor and the marginalised sections suffered, being denied of their rights and entitlements amidst a crisis.

During this COVID-19 pandemic, one becomes a witness to how social distancing has intensified the already-existing class inequalities, wherein there is a larger section of people desperate to sustain their livelihoods. Amidst the practice of “social distancing,” and “self-quarantine” becoming an important phrase in our vocabulary and practice, there are various measures taken by the government for virus prevention. However, at the grassroots level, they do not appear to be very inclusive of the marginalised sections in terms of their strategies of pandemic management. To identify the effect of this COVID-19 pandemic, the government identifies Indian states as red, orange and green zones. They are channelised and extensively advertised by the government and non-government agencies for mass awareness and virus prevention, but in between the stakes of these coloured zones, the trailed existence of the red-light areas is ghettoed and ignored from the socially insensitive narratives of the COVID-19 crisis. The case in discussion here is of the sex workers who reside in these red-light areas and their profession is considered as “a contact job” (Hurst et al 2020). The ravenous and derailed condition of the sex workers in every corner of India during the lockdown period reinforces these questions of uneven social foundations, and again, their missing link in the government’s relief packages compels one to wonder if the sex workers have been denied their human rights.

Several reports across the world indicate that whether it is a developing or developed country, sex workers are at the cliff, holding on to life with the bare minimum. A recent report by the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSWE) highlights the discriminatory and exclusive nature of government’s pandemic-recovery schemes across continents (Wheeler 2020). Officially, over six lakh sex workers1 are there in India, while the unofficial numbers may be higher. Many of them continue their profession from the narrow, dingy lanes of the urban metropolises like Delhi’s GB Road, Mumbai’s Kamathipura, Kolkata’s Sonagachi, Varanasi’s Shivdaspur, Pune’s Budhwar Peth, etc, and more than 1,100 red-light areas are here in India, falling within the range of plausible hotspots of the ongoing pandemic (Parthsarathi 2020). These areas under complete lockdown have been shunned from any income.

Irony of ‘Social Distancing’

The entire concept of “sex work,” parti­cularly in India, is at the relative juncture of the economic, social, and cultural engagement. Although, Indian history witnessed the categorically esteemed institution of sex work within the brief accounts of Vedas, Puranas, Mahabharata, Buddhist literature, Kautilya’s Arthashastra, etc, but under the colonial ­hegemony of moral politics, sex workers were relegated to the margins. Our society continues to use their professional services but casts them out publicly under the garb of a gentlemanly outlook playing upon the politics of “shame.” One iconic text that can be noted here is George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession (1893), which had immense reflection of Shaw’s discussion with sex workers, of course to no avail as far as the change of the mindset towards the profession is concerned. Sex work became a derogatory dhanda for them, making them dhandewalis.2 The Covid-19 pandemic may now add “social distancing” in sex workers’ existing vocabulary, but each one of them has already felt and imbibed the nuanced distance that society maintains with them. In “normal” or the pre-COVID-19 days, this distancing may not be of much concern to them, but since the virus tightened its grip over India and the government announced the safeguard of “social distancing,” the distance between sex workers and mainstream society widened the gap, making them swoon over the double edge of crisis. Most of them work from the brothels; while some as call girls provide services in places of demand, but due to the lockdown, the majority of them are stuck in their residential red-light areas.

Considering their places of residence as “home,” the entire sacrosanct ethos of the tag line “Stay Home, Stay Safe” promoted by state agencies and social media raises a big question mark in the context of the sex workers’ plight. Their places of stay are located mostly in the jam-packed lanes of red-light areas where practising social distance is close to impossible. In Delhi’s GB Road, over 3,000 sex workers share 80 small brothels. Similar types of congested residences are there in Kolkata’s Sonagachi, from where more than 10,000 sex workers continue their living. As many as 15–20 people share one bathroom with limited water supply, therefore, “hand sanitisation,” “self-quarantine” and overall hygiene are altogether too heavy phrases to follow up. The recent joint report of the Global Network of Sex Workers Project and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) has already sounded the grave threats that the COVID-19 pandemic will cast upon sex workers due to the combined effect of patriarchy, poverty, and social discrimination. Being “excluded from COVID-19 social protection responses, sex workers are faced with putting their safety, their health, and their lives at increased risk just to survive” (UNAIDS 2020a). The lockdown has put them in the midst of the worst reality ever. Even as they respond to the government’s call by deciding to stay indoors at their residences with no work, the “Laxman Rekha” between private and public spaces drawn by India’s Prime Minister in his nationwide lockdown announcement hardly guarantees the safety of these sex workers both from disease and hunger.

Futility of Laws and Codes

The socially and economically precarious position of sex workers that this pandemic crisis only exacerbates is duly rooted in their ambiguous position in Indian laws and codes. Most of the anti-sex work policies and policing practices do cause hurdles in accessing their rights to earn from rendering their sexual-activity contingent services. The entire industry of commercialised sex was criminalised soon after India’s independence in 1956 under the Suppression of Immoral Traffic Act (SITA). Under the pressure of constitutional challenges regarding the right to the profession, this act was amended in 1986 as the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act (ITPA), and it partially decriminalised sex as a profession for adults, putting sex workers across India in a legally vague position. The activities needed for sex work like keeping a brothel, “soliciting in public places,” “living off the earnings of prostitutes,” “seduction of persons in custody,” etc, are all under criminal provisions (Reddy 2004).

The Union Cabinet of the Government of India’s recently approved Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2018 is also not clear and comprehensive about sex workers’ rights, since the bill is coupled with the ITPA 1986 with extensive emphasis on the strategies of raids and rescue that hardly pay heed to the consenting sex between adults resulting in “human rights violations” (Pai et al 2018). Although the Supreme Court of India recommends entitlement rights of sex workers and as per the norms of Article 21 of the Constitution, which urges states to provide willing sex workers a conducive situation to continue their profession, there are several instances under which sex workers often face harassment and are abused by police, agents, clients, goons and whoever sees them at work. Even a decade ago, a Supreme Court panel did recommend the central government and Election Commission to issue sex workers voter ID cards relaxing verification and appealed to states and local institutions to promote ration cards to them.3 Under stigma, till date, sex workers are often denied the basic entitlements of ration cards, health cards, and if they ask, they are routinely silenced at the end of legal questions. Apart from prostitution policies, this lack of documentation provides grounds to exclude them in broader forms of social and economic sectors and increases the level of vulnerabilities amidst this COVID-19 pandemic.

Economic Fallout

Sex work in India is one of the unrecognised economic sectors where most of the work is informal and unprotected (Agarwala 2013). Under dominant discourses of the developing nations, sex workers are either “exploited victims” or “fallen women” and are rarely in the broader spectrum counted as workers. Although, in recent times, by valorising the term “sex worker” other than “prostitute,” efforts are being shown towards their inclusion in the labour markets of India, and, for financial inclusion, the need of linking their profession with formal banking systems has already been highlighted by various scholarly insights, yet the results are still not satisfactory (Chakra­barty and Sharma 2018). Still, their profession is away from the loop of standard labour-protection measures, and thereby, both in the long- and short-term, their work is the most “informal” among India’s informal economy where the ongoing pandemic crisis hits hard, and overnight, they are left with no income. India’s quick imposition of lockdown as a precaution as well as a preventive measure for the deadly COVID-19 pandemic receives international appreciation. In reality, it costs the country’s economic growth, and each section has to undergo its cascading impact more or less. However, it is the daily wage earners working in the unorganised sectors who are instantly bearing the brunt of the crisis. The lack of a far-sighted plan during the lockdown became visible with the plight of migrant workers in their desperate attempts to reach home.

Lucknow had witnessed an accident of a migrant worker’s family in their desperate attempt to go back home over 750 km on a cycle (Pandey 2020). Recently, 16 migrant workers were run over by a freight train near Aurangabad, who were also walking back towards home (Banerjee and Mahale 2020). These incidents make visible the real disparity between the decision of an unforeseen lockdown and hunger in the country, which is reflected on social media, with the picture of pieces of bread scattered over that railway track. The irony of discourse is that while the public exhibits its concerns for migrant labourers over social media, there is rarely any concern shown over the troubles of sex workers amidst the lockdown, although their condition is grimmer than other wage earners. Quite a few attempts have been made by some non-governmental organisations at the local scale to distribute foods and other necessary items temporarily to the sex workers in red-light areas, such as by the Kat-Katha in Delhi, Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee in Kolkata, Kranti in Mumbai, etc. While such initiatives are highly commendable, they are barely enough for the sustenance of the entire sex workers’ community amidst this extended time this pandemic crisis continues.

Finance Minister of India Nirmala Sitharaman, in response to the pandemic lockdown, announced relief packages for the benefit of people in informal sectors. In brief, these include doubling of ration entitlements free of cost to the beneficiaries under the National Food Security Act, giving `500 per month directly to the “Jan Dhan Yojana” bank accounts of female customers, disbursing a pension amount of `1,000 for the coming three months to the widows, old persons, and persons with disabilities. The government has also announced free liquefied petroleum gas cylinders for three months to the beneficiaries of “Ujjwala Yojana.”

However, nowhere is it clearly mentioned as to how much these relief packages are going to benefit the socio-economically excluded groups like sex workers. To avail the benefits of these government’s relief packages, the Aadhaar number has been made mandatory, which most of the sex workers lack, and so is the issue with having a bank account, since they sustain mostly on liquid cash due to the highly informal nature of their profession. Their clientele mostly includes truck drivers, migrant workers, and others who are also facing an economic challenge amidst lockdown that has decreased their footfalls at a noticeable rate in red-light areas. Since sex workers often have no savings and the lockdown has blocked their source of income, they are unable to pay their residential rents and are left at the stake of hunger and anxiety. Even if the lockdown gets entirely lifted soon, it is a matter of debate as to how much they will be allowed to continue the profession, for “social distancing” has become the new normal.


The trajectory of the COVID-19 crisis in India and its intersection with political decisions setting up new sociocultural norms have placed sex workers of India at the receiving end of apprehensions. Over and again, it puts their human rights in question, although the executive director of UNAIDS, Winnie Byanyima (24 April 2020), continuously reminded the countries to be inclusive of sex workers in their pandemic management schemes, since human rights are universal, inalienable and interdependent. The roots and layers of sex workers’ problems attuned to the broader spectrum of the social, economic, political, and legislative contexts of India are densely exclusionary in that inventing its fixed antidote may even be more challenging than discovering the vaccine for COVID-19. Should not some immediate infrastructure be arranged for this marginal section of women, at least to sustain them amidst this pandemic? At a point when imagining an agency for the marginalised in this kind of a state of crisis is quite utopian, it surely points towards an opportunity to rethink the existing norms and practices collectively.


1 As per the UNAIDS survey in 2016, there are 6,57,800 sex workers present in India.

Dhandewali is a native Hindi word for sex workers which is considered to be derogatory.

3 In 2011, the Supreme Court of India, in its interim order, urged rehabilitation of sex workers. For further details, see:


Agarwala, R (2013): Informal Labor, Formal Politics, and Dignified Discontent in India, New York: Cambridge University Press.

Banerjee, S and A Mahale (2020): “16 Migrant Workers Run Over by Goods Train Near Aurangabad in Maharashtra,” Hindu, 8 May, viewed on 9 May,

Chakrabarty, A and V Sharma (2018): “Financial Inclusion of Female Sex Workers: A Study from Andhra Pradesh,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 53, No 44, 3 November, pp 30–35.

Hurst, L, M Martinez and L Monella (2020): “‘It’s a Contact Job’: Sex Workers Struggle Amid the Coronavirus Crisis,” Euronews, 16 April, viewed on 9 May,

Pai, A, M Seshu and L Murthy (2018): “In Its Haste to Rescue Sex Workers, ‘Anti-Trafficking’ Is Increasing Their Vulnerability,” EPW Engage, Vol 53, No 28, 14 July,

Pandey, A (2020): “Migrant Couple on 700-km Cycle Journey Home Run Over, Children Injured,” NDTV, 8 May, viewed on 9 May,

Parthsarathi, M (2020): “No Money, Food or Medicines, Delhi’s Sex Workers Struggle to Survive in Lockdown,” Outlook, 6 April, viewed on 28 April,

Reddy, G B (2004): “Prevention of Immoral Traffic and Law,” Hyderabad: Gogia Law Agency.

Shaw, G B (1893): Mrs Warren’s Profession, L W Conolly (ed), Toronto: Broadview Press, 2005.

UNAIDS (2020a): “Sex Workers Must Not be Left Behind in the Response to COVID-19,” 8 April, viewed on 2 May 2020,

— (2020b): “COVID-19 Responses Must Uphold and Protect the Human Rights of Sex Workers,” 24 April, viewed on 4 May 2020,

Wheeler, S (2020): “Sex Workers Struggle to Survive Covid-19 Pandemic: Criminalisation Makes a Bad Situation Worse,” Human Rights Watch, 4 May, viewed on 8 May,


Updated On : 3rd Aug, 2020


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