Soukhya Sanjeevini Samsthe: Supporting and protecting women in sex work during COVID-19

Priya (name changed) was among the many who lost their jobs and found themselves facing an uncertain future during the COVID-19 induced lockdown in India. As a sex worker and a daily wage labourer at local APMC, the 34-year-old widow and mother of two, from Peresandra village in Chikkaballapur, was already under pressure to make ends meet. The lockdown exacerbated all her worries.

During the lockdown and even as it was gradually lifting, sex workers saw their sources of income completely dry up. Priya was out of work for four months and the financial burden weighed heavier than it did before. To add to her worries, Priya – a person living with HIV – couldn’t visit Integrated Counselling and Testing Centres (ICTC) and Antiretroviral therapy (ART) centres as the lockdown had brought all kinds of transport to a halt. 

Help came in the form of Soukhya Sanjeevini Samsthe (SSS), a community based organization Priya had been a member of for five years. Soukhya Sanjeevini Samsthe is a part of the TAARAS Coalition (a coalition of women in sex work) and one of the first few partners of #COVIDActionCollab. SSS, registered as an NGO in 2009, currently works with 1971 women in sex work across six talukas of the Chikkaballapur district in Karnataka. They are also members of the All India Network of Sex Workers. 

SSS approached local donors, including local leaders, social workers and residents, who sponsored grocery and hygiene kits for many members of the organization. The women also received support from donor organizations such as Ashraya Hastha Trust (AHT) and Sangama. 

Like Priya, most members of the organization had lost their livelihoods, rendering them unable to pay rent, utility bills, keep their children in school or feed their families. Timely support from SSS was necessary to ensure that the members and their families were able to tide over this crisis. 

Swasti, a CAC partner and also a partner of Soukhya Sanjeevini Samsthe, set up a proposal with  Give India, an online donation platform, to supply food and essential supplies to 6000 most vulnerable families affected by COVID-19 in 35 districts of 5 States of India (AP, KA, MH, TN & TS). Around 120 SSS members and their families, including Priya, were beneficiaries of the support from Give India. 

SSS also mobilized support from the All India Network of Sex Workers who deposited Rs 3000/- each in the bank accounts of Priya and 15 other members, seeing them through a period of emergency and uncertainty. The community organization was also proactive in addressing the medical needs of their PLHIV members during the lockdown, procuring ART medicines from the district hospital and supplying it to them. 

With the lockdown lifted, the women have gradually begun to go back to work again. But COVID-19 had taken a big hit on their savings and their income is yet to go back to pre-pandemic levels, as many still try to repay loans they had taken to meet various needs during the lockdown.

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