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Alive Amidst the Mayhem of COVID-19 – A Sex Worker’s Story

NEW YORK, Apr 9 2020 (IPS) - For a Bangladeshi woman, who has worked as a sex worker since childhood, her future post-COVID-19 looks hopeless.

Shilpy, who works at Daulatdia, the largest brothel in the country, told IPS how she now also fears for the future of her two daughters.

“When I was born, the woman my mother worked for gave everyone rice pudding as a celebration. This is not a place for male children, only females are valued,” she says, adding that when her mother died, she wasn’t given a proper burial. Shilpy soon found herself involved in the sex industry.

“I think I was around six years old when I learned to dance, put makeup on and taught other traits profitable for the business. I was sold after a few years,” Shilpy says.

Sex work is legal in Bangladesh for women aged 18 or older, although new sex workers are often much younger. Many of them are sold into sex work for about $250 which the women need to repay to their handlers, usually older women, known as ‘madams’.

The sex workers’ rights were confirmed in 2014. The Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association convinced the High Court the eviction of the sex workers from another large brothel, Kandapara, was illegal. This decision was welcomed as girls born in a brothel or belonging to a sex-worker are shunned by society and have no place to go.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing protocols to prevent the diseases spread resulted in the closure of brothels.

The World Health Organization (WHO) on March 11, 2020, characterised the Coronavirus/COVID-19 disease as a pandemic and called for a comprehensive, all-of-society strategy to prevent infections from saving lives and minimising the impact. Following the global outbreak, the Bangladesh government ordered a shutdown of all businesses, including brothels until at least April 14.

The sex workers have accepted the government order because it is a serious health issue.

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women, in March commented the pandemic had shifted the way we work and live. She noted women’s unique role in this.

“One thing is clear about the COVID-19 pandemic, as stock markets tumble, schools and universities close, people stockpile supplies and home becomes a different and crowded space: this is not just a health issue.

“It is a profound shock to our societies and economies, exposing the deficiencies of public and private arrangements that currently function only if women play multiple and underpaid roles,” Mlambo-Ngcuka said.

Sex workers are one of the categories of women profoundly affected by international shutdowns.

The Bangladesh government promised to give all of the sex workers a package of 30 kgs of rice, $25, and a freeze on rent during the lockdown. But this is little comfort to the more than 3500 sex workers at the brothels which were frequented by 8000 customers a day.

For Shilpy, the lockdown is devastating. A few years ago, a local NGO health worker told her about a safe home where her children could go and get an education.

“Without a second thought I signed up my children on the spot and later left my two daughters in their care when the little one was only six months old,” says Shilpy. “I just knew that they needed to be out of this place. I pay a portion of the tuition, and the NGO pays for the rest. I save $1 someday or $2 on good days and keep it for their education. The NGO lady assured me that my children would never have to return to the brothel. I want them to have a normal life and get married.”

With the closure, this future she planned for her children is no longer assured.

Shilpy is not alone; most of the sex workers face similar dilemmas.

Most sex workers in Bangladesh live hand-to-mouth existences, with only about one in nine having the ability to save up and feed themselves. On average, workers earn between $12 to $24 a day.

The truth is that many of these women may not return to sex work for some time after the pandemic has come under control.

Many stories describe men’s fears of getting COVID-19 when engaging sex workers. Fewer stories define how sex workers’ lives remain extraordinarily precarious and the risks they face of being infected with the novel coronavirus. The physical and psychological harm, abuse and exploitation, the perpetrators, sex buyers, and traffickers inflict on women and girls in prostitution remain with the sex workers forever.

Yet for Shilpy sex work was her means for survival.

“Now, as our place is closed, I have no way to earn, and I fear that my children will be ruined. I have no place to keep them. My family cut all family ties, and this is the only home I have.”


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