Starvation! That is what we faced. We had no money, no food, and really no hope. We were fearful and felt so isolated. If not for my sisters, my community members, I don’t know what I would have done.
Ratnamma, a sex worker from Karnataka
That the COVID-19 pandemic impacted all of us in myriad ways is well-established. But the pandemic also exposed the nation-state’s unwillingness or inability to perform its duty to protect its citizens, especially those who have been historically denied their rightful place in society.
Shubha Chacko is the Executive Director of Solidarity Foundation, an Indian NGO that supports grassroots organizations of sexual and gender minorities (LGBTIAQ+) and sex workers by building collectives, capacities, and connections.
One of the communities that fell through the Indian nation-state’s frayed safety net during the lockdown was sex workers, whose occupation is often concealed behind a veil due to sexual morality codes, and unlike other occupations, has little legitimacy. Oftentimes, the result is dehumanization.
For sex workers, their collectives and community-based organizations (CBOs) serve as a lifeline and offer them a chance at collective agency to write their own futures. This idea of caring and support flies in the face of the framing of self-care as a solo activity, which is mostly about self-indulgence, pampering, and consuming certain goods and services that are promoted by the market.
Nobody gives a damn about us. Not the government officials, not the local leaders, not even the charitable organizations. We are viewed as bad people who don’t deserve any support.
Mumtaz, a sex worker from Andhra Pradesh, India
Sex Workers Organizing for Change
A conservative estimate puts the number of female sex workers in India at 1.2 million, although given the nature of the occupation, this is a huge underestimation. The situation of sex workers in India is exceedingly complex. Sex work as such is not illegal in the country, but everything around sex work is criminalized under the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act passed in 1956 — a law that purports to prevent human trafficking. It is premised on the false assumption that every type of sex work is a form of sexual exploitation or abuse and prescribes rescue and rehabilitation as a response.
In practice, this serves as an instrument to curb any visible prostitution, harass sex workers, incarcerate women in jails as presumed traffickers, or in protective homes as victims. It restricts the freedoms of sex workers, denies their agency, and imposes a one-size-fits-all rehabilitation plan on them. Criminalization, coupled with deep-seated stigma, prevents sex workers from freely occupying public spaces, accessing health services, and social entitlements and contributes to marginalization.
Sex worker organizing in India has grown over the years in terms of size, focus, and organizational strength. The HIV prevention programme that was funded initially by donors from the Global North and then through the state gave further impetus to the movement. Networks such as the National Network of Sex Workers (NNSW) and the All-India Network of Sex Workers bring together sex worker collectives and organizations that support them. The issues they address include violence and stigma, as well as policy issues at the national and international level.
The terrain though is rocky due to the challenge of organizing in a sector that is not considered entirely legal. Other challenges include the rapid reductions in funding for HIV prevention programmes, along with the growing strength of anti-trafficking advocacy that conflates trafficking and sex work.
Sex work is also an occupation where anonymity is prized. This runs counter to the logic of organizing , where one of the main purposes is to render visible issues of communities that are at the margins. A leading sex worker organizer, Marie, says that, “When I can reach help to the members I felt a deep sense of contentment. But many call me, sobbing, pleading for some support — and sometimes I can’t do anything. I felt helpless.”
Collective Care and Self-Care
In the context of assaults, state neglect, and social indifference to sex workers’ plight, the CBOs were often key in offering assistance. Some of these collectives have gone beyond delivering HIV prevention-related services, and play a critical role in facilitating sex workers’ access to social services and mitigating the everyday levels of violence faced.
They have, for example, put pressure on local police authorities to reduce levels of unlawful detainment and police harassment. They also respond to cases of discrimination by families, landlords, or school officials. During the pandemic, this took the form of meeting their urgent needs by distributing life-saving food rations and hygiene products, facilitating access to testing services and vaccines, and caring for the ill. Overall, the CBOs play a pivotal role in asserting the collective rights for their members to access services.
Whatever happens to me, I know that I have my people to support me — that gives me strength to go on.
Khushboo, a sex worker from Bangalore
Sex workers find solace in the CBO or collective, which offers a safe space where they can share their fears and feelings, as well as hopes. The deep friendships that are forged between them provide support when they are faced with uncertainty and other problems. These relationships are particularly precious as sex workers often lead double lives, and are unable to be themselves in most other settings. These connections are imperative for their sense of self and wellbeing. They feel reassured, accepted, and understood by each other.
These caring connections with each other stem from the strong collectives that they build, while in turn, these intimate bonds make the organization more robust. This kind of collective caring that CBOs offer runs counter to the current neoliberal ideal of self-care. While self-care centres on individualism, this collective protection offers an expanded vision of human security and helps address not just material needs, but also gender-based violence.
The current neoliberal dogmas of self-care, self-love, and self-help focus solely on the individual and fail to recognize the role of social, economic, and political systems that expose sex workers to risks and vulnerabilities. Self-care has become a concept tied in with products or services that we must consume in order to be happy and to buy our way out of our sense of alienation and pressure. What the sex workers’ collectives offer is the idea of collective or collaborative care — a more feminist approach that includes showing up for each other in various ways, and pointing to the possibilities of a transformative and sustainable feminist leadership that centres care and collaboration over competition and narrow individual gains.
Bereft of other support, the assistance sex workers offer each other takes on various forms. At the practical level, it includes informal babysitting arrangements and accompanying other sex workers to hospitals. Most sex workers cannot afford paid child care services and often lack family support. They share strategies with each other to minimize risks. This includes tips to negotiate with unsavoury clients, aggressive police personnel, or uncaring partners. They also discuss digital safety issues and pointers on financial prudence.
The community members are usually also the first responders when sex workers face violence, abuse, or are going through personal distress, as they understand each other’s situations and compulsions. During the pandemic in particular, isolation and loneliness hit them hard, affecting both their private and public lives. Many of them were stuck in abusive homes. Most of them have to conceal their occupation from others, including family members. These spaces nurture them and offer an opportunity for them to question patriarchal norms, reclaim individual and collective voice(s), and develop perspectives and strategies to deploy in particular situations.
Self-care in this context is about promoting interdependencies and autonomy and offering women a chance to challenge everyday norms and expectations, moving away from society’s predefined roles for women. It is about being revitalized to fight back and assert that they matter, and that their experiences matter. This coming together affords them an opportunity to push against systems that are oppressive and tend to negate them. It is about asserting their dignity.
It was not the few kilos of rice that made a difference, but that someone remembered us. That made my eyes well up and I shared what I got with my neighbours.
Mumtaz, a sex worker from a small town in Tamil Nadu
Strengthening the Movement
The struggles and resilience of sex workers offers those of us who seek to expand and strengthen grassroots feminist movements a few pointers. The relationships of movements with the state, political parties, support groups, and transnational networks are complex, but undoubtedly, policy shifts can create enabling environment in which spaces for movements may be enlarged.
The first step towards ensuring greater protections for sex workers is to dismantle all forms of criminalization of sex work (including of sex workers, clients, third parties, families, partners, and friends). This will also improve their access to health and other services, reduces their vulnerability to violence, and begins to tackle the exploitation that occurs within the sex industry.
The New Zealand experience offers important insights in this area. New Zealand remains the only country to have decriminalized sex work at a national level. These changes in the legal atmosphere have boosted labour rights, with sex workers now able to report exploitative practices and press for safer working conditions.
While legal and cultural changes are imperative, the rampant prejudice against sex workers that permeates all institutions and spaces in India makes coming together, organizing, or being visible challenging and even dangerous. Dismantling these judgemental attitudes is vital to move towards a situation where they no longer need to operate in covert, isolated conditions. They can then seek support from a wider range of allies, experts, and both public as well as private service providers.
Besides these larger macro-level changes, investing in organizations that are closest and most accessible to them is crucial. These CBOs are the first institutions that community members turn to for information, support, and reassurance. This is due to their proximity, which goes far beyond mere physical distance. It implies emotional closeness, shared sentiments and beliefs, and commonality in terms of background and experiences. This nearness translates to the CBO’s ability to have a strong influence on the lives of sex workers.
For CBOs to be able to respond to the changing circumstances and the urgent needs of their members there is need for more flexible, innovative, and easily accessible funding models than those currently employed. The need to overhaul current funding paradigms was brought home sharply to most philanthropic organizations during the pandemic. “Untying” funding, i.e. removing the conditions and stipulations attached to financial aid, will also help them advance their broader agendas of building a diverse and broad feminist movement. The Red Umbrella Fund is an example of a bold idea — a sex worker-driven fund.
These CBOs also house invaluable local connections and knowledge: The intellectual contributions of local leaders in empowering and sustaining communities is often underestimated. These inputs are indispensable as we move to address the long-term impact of structural inequalities exacerbated by COVID-19. The Sex Workers Academy Africa is an interesting experiment in this area.
Besides supporting local organizations, there is a need to invest in strengthening networks, coalitions, and alliances with other groups to build cross-issue mobilization for genuine, transformative changes. These, along with other networks of leaders, will allow information sharing and strategy development, and serve as a safe space for solidarity and support.
In all of this, we need to acknowledge burnout, exhaustion, stress, and the unsustainable culture of activism that we often valorize. This is an important first step in shaping our feminist notions of care. Care for individual leaders is essential, but so too are forums that allow them to gather, share, listen, and learn with each other, to gather strength from each other and revitalize themselves and their movements.