Kolkata: Around 89 per cent of the sex workers of Sonagachi have fallen into debt trap during the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of the sex workers have taken loans during the lockdown as they were out of business. This information has been provided by a survey conducted by NGO – Anti Human Trafficking Organisation.
The survey also revealed that post-pandemic 73 per cent of the sex workers want to leave the trade and look for new avenues of income. However, they couldn’t do so as they had taken loans from the informal sector. The sex workers took loans from money lenders, brothel owners and pimps making themselves vulnerable to further exploitation. Incidentally Sonagachi is the largest red light area in Asia.
“Around 89 per cent of sex workers in Sonagachi have fallen into debt bondage during the pandemic. Of these, over 81 per cent of them have taken loans from the informal sector. Seventy three per cent of the sex workers want to leave the sex trade. However, they have not been able to do so as the lenders are not allowing them,” the report said.
Sonagachi is home to around 7,000 residential sex workers. Since March, the sex workers have been out of business with no source of income. Since July, around 65 per cent business in Sonagachi resumed. About 98 per cent of the sex workers were contacted for the survey.
“Piled up in huge debts, the sex workers have nowhere 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 West Bengal government to intervene and help them carve an alternative plan,” said Tapan Saha. He is national youth president of ‘Anti Human Trafficking Organisation’.
‘Durbar’ is another organisation here which works for the welfare of sex workers. An official said the sex workers have been reeling under immense financial pressure since the beginning of the lockdown.
“Only 65 per cent of the business has resumed. There is financial stress as it is no longer business as usual. There was a cooperative bank run by sex workers, but all of them are not part of it. Also sex workers prefer money lenders and pimps for borrowing money as they don’t need any papers,” the officials said.
When contacted West Bengal Women and Child Development Minister Sashi Panja said she is not aware of any such survey. However, she pointed out that the government had extended all sort of help to the sex workers during lockdown.
“I am not aware of such surveys. If the sex workers write to us, we can look into it. But the state government since the beginning of lockdown has provided all sorts of help, including providing free ration,” Panja said.
The survey suggested that policymakers, along with the support of NGOs, should formulate an alternative livelihood plan for the local sex workers. This would help sex workers who want to start their venture get access to easy credit and collateral-free microfinance opportunities.
It is not just that the sex workers are suffering from financial crunch alone. Many of them are suffering from acute malnutrition as without finances they are failing to have a proper diet. Also they are not being able pay the rent for the premises they are residing in as they have run out of money.
Also there is doubt as to whether 65 per cent of the business has resumed. Sonagachi carries a deserted look these days and very rarely customers are seen. A couple of sex workers said that it is more than 10 days since they have a customer. They stated that the money lenders are also not allowing them to take up any other vocation.