Sex workers in Sonagachi reeling under debt bondage, lack of opportunities to opt out: study

Kolkata: A survey conducted by Anti Human Trafficking Organisation, an NGO that fights against the evil of trafficking and violation of human rights, reveals that 89% sex workers in Sonagachi have fallen into a debt bondage during the pandemic.

Of these, over 81% of them have taken loans from the informal sector, especially from money lenders, brothel owners, pimps, making themselves vulnerable to further exploitation. 73% of the sex workers want to leave sex trade, but are not able to do so due to the huge loans they have taken to survive the pandemic. Almost all sex workers (98%) who participated in the survey said they would chose alternate jobs and livelihood options if there is an opportunity.

Since March, these women have been out of business with no source of income. As the lockdown is easing out across the country, Songachi in Kolkata (Asia’s largest red-light area) has resumed operations. Sex workers are starting work out of desperation, risking their health and probably their lives.

“We are struggling to pay for our day-to-day needs, rents, utility bills, etc. and on top of that, we have to repay our loans,” says Regina (name changed on request), a sex worker from Sonagachi.

Over 93% of sex workers admitted that they fear for their lives but have no other means of survival and have to somehow earn money to pay back the surmounting debt. Even before the pandemic struck, 90% of the women had taken loans as depending solely on sex work did not yield them sufficient income to sustain themselves and their children. The uncertainty of the future continues to haunt them.

West Bengal which has progressive schemes such as Muktir Alo, failed to support this marginalized section of the society. The scheme is supposed to support rehabilitation of sex workers, but unfortunately it failed to deliver. There have been only 75 beneficiaries so far since its inception in 2015. The lack of an all-round approach for rehabilitation, outdated training methods of Muktir Alo are the reasons for its failure.

The dynamics of a red-light area do not allow a majority of sex workers to have their own identity. Hence, with no official proof or documents, it is difficult for them to obtain a credit loan from formal institutions as it involves paperwork and background clearance, states the study.

On October 8, the NHRC issued an advisory for state governments, which also talks about a moratorium on loans taken by women, including sex workers. However, this won’t help majority of the sex workers as they have taken loans from informal sources.

“Piled up in huge debts, the sex workers have no where to go. Even though the lockdown is now lifted, the women cannot carry on work due to the fear of the contagion. Now is the time for the state government to intervene and help them carve an alternative plan,” says Tapan Saha, National Youth President of Anti Human Trafficking Organisation.

Sonagachi in Kolkata has an estimated 7,000 sex workers operating from the dingy, congested multi-storey brothels in the locality. The place has been a centre of human trafficking for sexual exploitation and crimes of sexual violence. Some of the victims were also forced into prostitution when they were still a minor.

The survey suggests that policy makers, along with the support of NGOs, should formulate an Alternative Livelihood Plan for the local sex workers to provide relief as part of Covid-19 relief measures. Additionally, the district and the state administration should improve state-run services for rehabilitating sex workers, allocate budget and provide basic skill training programs under the various skill development missions. This would help sex workers who want to start their own venture get access to easy credit and collateral-free microfinance opportunities.

“Lastly, for the victims of sex-trafficking, a special victim relief fund should be established to help them pay-off their debts and move out of a life of exploitation and pain,” adds Saha.

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