Empowering lives of women in sex work during COVID-19 and otherwise: In Conversation with Hareesh B S, CEO, Swathi Group of Organisations.

Swathi Mahila Sangha (SMS) is one of the largest Community-Based Organisations (CBO) for women in sex work (WSW) in Karnataka. It strives to bring equity, equality, dignity and empowerment in the lives of WSW. Swathi Jyoti, promoted by SMS, is a community managed, mutually aided cooperative, providing financial services to its members. 

Team CAC caught up with Hareesh B S, CEO of Swathi Group of Organisations, to understand their COVID-19 response so far.

 

What have been your key actions, initiatives and outcomes around the COVID-19 response?

We have identified the People Living with HIV, that are living alone, and in adverse circumstances. To take care of their emergency needs, we are providing not only direct cash transfers, but also ARV medicines at their doorstep during lockdown. 3,200 out of 3,700 members have been provided moratorium facilities (Rs. 1.7 crores) without any penalty. In addition, we are identiyfing members who don’t have ration cards and providing them with dry ration kits through BBMP. We were able to reach out to 6,000 members via telecare to deliver telehealth consultations, counseling, medicine and Social Protection services. A highlight of our work has been distributing medicines for diabetes, hypertension, cardiac related issues, thyroid etc. to women living with chronic conditions. Finally, we are also helping women aspiring to diversify their livelihoods become financially independent, by giving top-up loans (1.3 crores) in addition to their existing loans. Community leaders catch up on a daily basis (now virtually), to discuss and brainstorm actions to be taken on real issues, and provide expeditious support to people in need. We are taking care of our staff and community leaders by providing PPE and salaries.

All these activities are managed by SMS and Swathi Jyothi’s own financial resources, without monetary support from any external donors. 

 

Which locations are you covering?

5 zones and 21 areas of Bengaluru urban district.

 

Any stories/insights emerged from the field or from your work? 

Two women from our organization shared their ordeals. They are not getting business right now because of COVID-19 and the social distancing norms. Even if they manage to get lucky with a customer or two coming home, the fear of contracting the disease drives them away. One mentioned “The government is looking out for other labourers but we have not received any help. No one shows any concern for our livelihoods. People like us need a permanent solution and support, to make ends meet. There are some sections of society that people have forgotten sex workers are members of one such section. They have been worried ever since the lockdown was imposed and are also uncertain about business in the future. The other woman mentioned “We have no alternate means to earn money. Once, I ventured out and was caught by the police who accused me of committing a crime and snatched my phone and demanded that I pay a fine of ₹20,000. They didn’t let me go even after 9:00 o’clock in the night. I had to call people I knew, and plead with them to arrange the money, for my freedom.Nearly 25,000 sex workers and their children are desperately hungry and struggle to survive in Bengaluru due to COVID-19 and the lockdown. These women have been facing the worst hardships of their lives, so much so, they find it difficult to make arrangements of barely ₹50 – ₹100, for one meal per day, because their homes run with the money they earn from their business. They are the bread-winners of their families and that’s how they take care of their children. As an organization when we approached them, we learnt that they were in dire need of basic necessities like groceries, medicines, masks, etc. And so, during the lockdown we arranged for these needs, with the help of the government and other donors. 

 

How did you leverage the COVID Action Collaborative? How do you plan on doing so in the future? 

CAC has helped analyse the situation and develop an emergency response to members in need, to fight COVID-19. The CAC also connected us with various donors and resources to leverage to in turn support community members.  

 

Media Coverage:

Swathi Mahila Sangha – Story Coverage of a member from Bengaluru, Karnataka, on Asianet Channel: 

Sex workers under lockdown in Bengaluru reveal their ordeal during COVID-19 crisis

Coverage of issues faced by the community (Women in sex work) by Tv9 Kannada:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sjl2pKMswGA

 

Statistics of Services provided by the organizations (as per March and April 2020):

We helped distribute Food & Grocery to 11,130 people, Medicine to 416 people, Cash Benefit to 209 people, Community Surveillance reach to 7,547 people, and Loans for emergency needs and livelihood activities of ₹130 lakhs.

 

Written by Shravya Srinivas 

Shravya is a recent undergraduate from Vellore Institute of Technology. Although from a Computer Science and Engineering background, she aspires to work in Strategy and Growth. Outside academics, she is extremely passionate about volunteering and helping the society. 

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