At least 20,000 sex workers have become jobless as coronavirus continues to wreak havoc
The present coronavirus pandemic has brought much hardship to workers in informal sectors, including sex workers. At least 8,000 of them have already become homeless in Dhaka with the lockdown imposed to choke the spread of infection.
The situation has also made 20,000 enlisted sex workers (including the 8,000) in the capital jobless. There are no customers which has brought hunger and starvation to the community.
Sex Workers' Network (SWN) in Bangladesh, a platform of 29 organizations, spoke to Dhaka Tribune about the situation on Tuesday.
SWN General Secretary Aliya Akhter Lily said there are 11 Drop In Centres (DICs) across the country under "Light house Bangladesh," a non-governmental organization (NGO), where homeless sex workers can stay throughout the day (not at night).
"Dhaka has several DICs for the workers. But now, no one can enter the centres as landlords [of the centres] bar them amid the coronavirus crisis," she said.
Many sex workers are now trying to hide their identities and take shelter in various places, she said.
The SWN said sex workers usually roam around Chandrima Udyan, Manik Mia Avenue, Mirpur, Kamalapur, Mugda, Sadarghat terminal, Airport Road, Lalbagh, Chankharpool, and some other areas of Dhaka.
70% of the 150,000 sex workers in Bangladesh, are not housed in brothels. They work the streets, according to SWN.
According to the last 2015 Unicef report done in collaboration with SWN, over 41,350 individuals were engaged in street-based sex work, 17,976 worked in hotels, and 29,078 worked from homes or residences, or what they termed "mini brothels."
SWN estimates the current numbers have increased by 20% in each category.
29-year-old Bokul Akhter (not her real name) is now unable to bear the pain of hunger.
Three days ago, she was on the street hoping for a customer in Dhaka's Mugda area beside Kamalapur Railway Station.
But around 8pm on the day, she was beaten up by some locals when they recognized her as a sex worker.
"Hiding my identity, I have living in a slum with some other sex workers for the last month. But each day is becoming critical as I have hardly eaten in the last 10 days," she told this correspondent.
Bokul, a mother of two children, has not ventured into the streets for relief, for fear of being violated again.
"People can tell our profession just by looking at us. So begging is not so easy for us either," said Bokul, who was abandoned by her husband 10 years ago.
Rina Akhter, 29, was sold at the age of eight to Daulatdia brothel in Rajbari. For the last 10 years, she has been serving in hotels and residences in Dhaka.
"We finish the day's income on the same day. We have no family and lead no normal life. I have a boyfriend whom I provide money so that he stays beside me. Whatever I saved up, was spent on house rent and treatment. I did not save a penny for the future, which is why I have become a beggar since the shutdown was imposed in Dhaka," said Rina.
On a regular day, Rina would earn Tk500-2,000, and sometimes around Tk3,000.
"Actually, sex workers often take various drugs to forget the pain [of this profession]. My lover is a drug dealer," she said.
Rina has not received any relief to date in the last one month, and now fears she will die if this situation continues.
"Disease is not the bigger obstacle for us: hunger is," she said.
This correspondent spoke to 10 sex workers who have worked the streets, hotels or worked from homes, but all of them have become jobless now.
Chumki Begum, former president of SWN, who supervises Dhaka's floating, street sex workers, said the ones between the ages of 35 and 45, have been hit the hardest since most of them would earn only Tk300-500.
"I was a sex worker too. But at the age of 50, I opened my eatery. As the shop is closed now, I do not have any income either.
"The sex workers usually spend all their money on drugs and lovers, which I did too," she added.
SWN General Secretary Aliya Akhter Lily said some organizations, including the government, distributed relief to some brothels which was not much.
Floating street sex workers remain deprived of such relief, which is only making it worse for them, she added.