Freedom from sexual slavery: How philanthropies can help sex workers carve alternative path amid COVID crisis

October 22, 2020 3:34 PM

We have turned a blind eye for decades when the poor were dragged into the heinous crime of sex trafficking, sold to the brothels and forced into prostitution. The decision makers too were deaf to the muffled screams of the victims.

Congress leader Alka Lamba

 

By Alka Lamba

News reports of red-light areas in GB road resuming operations have had a disturbing effect on me for the last couple of weeks. What’s more bothering is the quotes of sex workers saying that they are scared to risk their lives but have to work anyway, out of sheer helplessness. Most of the sexworkers who spent the last few months of the pandemic in brothels in the cramped lanes of red-light areas, with no other place to go, had borrowed money from their brothel owners and pimps to survive the lockdown. Having no alternative path to pursue, they are now forced back into prostitution to earn their living and pay back the debts incurred.

Reading the reports made it evident that sex workers would opt out of the flesh trade if provided with alternative employment options and the responsibility is now on our shoulders as fellow citizens to help them out. We have turned a blind eye for decades when the poor were dragged into the heinous crime of sex trafficking, sold to the brothels and forced into prostitution. The decision makers too were deaf to the muffled screams of the victims.

With the pandemic aggravating the social inequalities, we should not remain indifferent to the situation of sexworkers. Now is the time for us to act collectively. If the sex workers don’t find any alternative means to eke out a living, the red-light areas in other parts of the country will soon open up and all of these women will be forced to risk their health and probably their life too. NGOs deeply embedded into serving the community of sexworkers need to come forward to create an exit plan and provide a dignified platform for these women to restart their lives.

However, while much of the support from corporate funders and philanthropic ecosystems is currently focusing towards immediate disaster relief and helping the government mitigate the crisis, hardly any funding support is available for the distressed sex workers. In the absence of funding, NGOs and several smaller organisations are currently in the wait-and-watch mode, unable to take any immediate action to tackle the on-ground necessities. A moment lost now is lost forever. Therefore, it is essential to assess how philanthropists can complement government action and continue to play an active role to augment the efforts of all those who are working towards providing alternative livelihoods for sex workers.

Philanthropy leadership is the pillar of support for the marginalized

With the government budgets likely to become constrained in the coming months, the need for philanthropic investments will increase. Philanthropies contributed immensely to India’s COVID-19 recovery plan and supported several organisations, including governmental institutions, to fight the pandemic. But why leave sex workers out of the plans?

Therefore, philanthropists could, come up with new, thoughtful approaches to see how they can support organisations working in this area for a longer-term to facilitate reintegration of sex workers in the society. Also, the Delhi government and statutory bodies like the Delhi Commission for Women, which is always on the forefront of fighting the atrocities faced by women, should collaborate with philanthropies to address this complex issue. Such a partnership will yield a larger impact for the cause.

I suggest some primary steps that philanthropies can take to support the sexworkers:

Provide flexible funding. Organisations will need money to create a solid education plan, reskill and upskill the women, and ultimately find quality jobs for them through different networking techniques. Making flexible funds available will enable the organisations to use the resource as for capacity building programmes, collaborate with industry experts for mentoring the women and build resilience.
This pattern will also need us to work on new approaches for accountability.

Build a cluster of organisations with diverse skillsets to work on this issue. Since the area of work is niche, there will be NGOs focusing on different aspects of alternative livelihoods for sex workers. For instance, one organisation would be working on educating and training the women, the other might be arranging for housing. There might be some providing counselling for better mental health. By building a network of such organisations, philanthropies can aim for a holistic approach of rehabilitation of sex workers. This will also create a unified agency over a period of time to address the issues of marginalized and vulnerable women.

Invest in digital infrastructure. Just because we are dealing with marginalised communities, it doesn’t mean we ignore the digital world. Organisations should be encouraged to use online medium for training and skilling sessions. Equipping the women with digital literacy will also make it easier for them to find jobs in the remote working environment. Philanthropies should, therefore, invest in digital infrastructure.

Provide seed capital for entrepreneurs. Once they are educated and trained, some women might want to start their own business. To support these women entrepreneurs, institutional funding can be diversified as seed capital. This becomes an important part of providing alternative path for sexworkers.

While these are just starters, philanthropy leaders, along with the government support, can spearhead a social change by channelising their finances to support organisations helping sex workers opt out of the shackles of forced prostitution. With such thoughtful strategies, philanthropies can enable sex workers to break free from sex slavery and start a fresh life all over again.

Author is an ex-MLA, Congress party member and a social activist

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