The Room for Stigma in the Time of a Pandemic

Neha Verma - Associate, Gender Equality Program

“We are not all in the same boat. We are in the same storm. Some of us are on superyachts. Some of us have just one oar.” ― Damian Barr, Imagine A Country: Ideas for a Better Future

The fragrance of jasmine, floral garland in hair, grace of crimson lipsticks, the clanging of jhumkas, and libidinous invoking are no more to be seen on the pavements during this terrifying time of the Pandemic. In the lap of isolation and quarantine at a global level, everything continues to go through a crisis, or I must say everyone is battling through one weapon to fight with novel Coronavirus and that is Isolation or social distancing. We are voluntarily or involuntarily being separated by Covid-19. From privileged to underprivileged, from ministers to employees, from the literate to the illiterate, and from labourers to sex workers, everybody is paying their price. Indian sex workers,  male, female or transgender, are generally live in underprivileg and fatal edge of the scarcity of basic resources and remain socially admonished. They face the stigma of ‘prostitution’ ‘whore’ and ‘slut’ which creates social inequality. This anti-egalitarianism gives birth to uncountable discrimination of the sex workers. This insidious profession of sex workers is undesirable to them but somehow they become prey of it.

The Rhetoric of language

As we all discern that language plays a pivotal role in signifying someone’s identity as well as their acceptance in society but, it also has terms and conditions. So, I am taking the help of a reputed Swiss linguist, Ferdinand De Saussure’s theory of structuralism which says “Language can be viewed synchronically ( as it exists at any particular time) and diachronically (as it changed in the course of time).” If we see, the term ‘sex worker’ under the light of diachronic structure of language, then we will perceive it as a notion of someone who is not welcomed in the respected society, in the context of the present time because this word’s connotation has been changed now. This contradicts the earlier belief, mentioned in Arthashastra in which Kautilya talks about procuring venerable and graceful status to the courtesans. In earlier times, we find the proof in historical legends, that courtesans like Amrapali were being eulogised by the local public and still in today’s time her name is taken with esteem. She was immensely talented and the most beautiful girl of Vaishali kingdom. In bygone days, sex workers in certain times were welcomed in the royal cities and were provided a certain position in the court, rather than remaining underground, references to these can be found in Arthshastra, where Chanakya provides a well regulated system for sex-workers and coutesans. They even used to contribute to the battles and also used to invigorate the soldiers to fight bravely. So, resume to the point, what we have discovered, that such identities of the sex worker’s no matter what their gender is, if they’re male or female, or transgender, they live with negative connotations, be it in outskirts or right in the middle of the cities. Red-light areas of the metro city are just an exception. The brothels were constructed in both the main streets and outskirts of the cities.  The idea of discrimination to the sex workers is so inequitable and it becomes adverse in the time of Coronavirus. This prejudiced notion is generated by the human mind itself to segregate the sex workers away from the society and coerced them to live in isolation. They have to acquiesce the norms of the social system for their survival and have to live under certain folk’s charity or refuge.

Hence, when you speak some word which has optimistic and moral relevance to it, that naturally sounds good to the ear. But when you uncover specific negative qualities with some word then you immediately catch a feeling of evil to that word, for e.g we all have faith in police to save our lives, whenever we are stuck in danger, we never call a don to save our life, no matter how brave the latter is. This occurs due to the positive impact or value associated with the word called police. Similarly, the image of sex workers is degrading since colonial times. We all see a sex worker’s profession as an act of the devil or heinous crime if it is done voluntarily or involuntarily, unlike the ancient days where the courtesans were prodigious beings and the children of the whole kingdom were sent to courtesan’s house for learning dancing, singing, playing musical instruments, painting, reciting, acting, writing, and other love making skills.

The discrimination of sex workers and their stigma can be eradicated merely if we stop believing that it’s a bad word or has negative connotation. Because sometimes due to lack of a job, one has to indulge in it.  This will draw the attention towards generating helping hands for sex workers which includes transgender too.

According to the United Nations Programme on HIV and Aids report, 2016, we have 657,829 sex workers in India. The government of India has provided a new definition for sex workers in “The Immoral Traffic Act-1987”, as some sexual exploitation or abuse of people for commercial purposes. But the major thing which seems conspicuous is that they have been persuaded to live under the room of stigma and isolation since birth, in case they are the children of sex workers too because such children or offsprings have to go through bullying and other troublesome vulnerabilities. Social stigma hits hard when someone is a sex worker because without gaining physical touch you cannot perform the job, there will always be a trepidation of infection. These stigmatised identities are striving hard to pay their rentals, rations, and other necessary expenditures. Apart from losing the daily jobs and customers, many women have families in the village to support financially. Some of the sex workers have not disclosed it to their family that, where does the income come from.

In this age of digitalisation and Digital Bharat, online payment services are mainly used by sex workers in metrocities, nonetheless the availability of these services are pan-india,  most sex workers in maare unaware of the online payment services, generally unskilled labourers who rarely use digital payment services. Making money is tough in the unorganised sector of the economy in the time of the pandemic. Everybody cannot access the internet for pleasing people as male strippers or female strippers do to their online customers.

Panic sagas of lockdown

Tejasvi Sevekari, executive director for Saheli Sangh, a social platform for sex workers, said that there are several sex workers who had routine health privileges for diseases such as diabetes and hyerptention. However due to the larger sections of the hospitals have denied providing the routine check-up services to the patients due to the fear of infection. Transgenders were immensely disturbed during the lockdown because there were no transportation available to hospitals which remain the only source of undertaking a COVID-19 test. On the other hand, it becomes atrocious to the patients of mental health survivors who are getting uncertainty over life. She expresses dismay over it and added further that it will take approx 8-12 months to get back to life normally. Such cases can be found all across India, for example in Ranchi’s Ghumla where a sex worker earns 40-50 rupees on a client and sometimes they have to offer the service in kindness in lieu of tiling  or harvesting their farmland. Pushpa Sharma, Srijan Foundation, sheds light on how many HIV survivors in Mumbai have faced problems in accessing ART (antiretroviral therapy) in the initial days of lockdown. There are several cases, where dailywage workers go to Ranchi in search of a daily job and if they don’t find any, they are compelled to provide sex services, to earn their meals for the day. As the lockdown halted the means of travelling, several remained stuck in various locations, unable to return home. These dialywage (sex workers) didn’t have identity proof or ration card to take benefits of grocery, further added by Sharma.

As reported by  Gitanjali Babber, from Kat Katha, a delhi based NGO which assists the sex workers of G.B road, daily wage sex-workers of the region believe in hard cash spending meaning, they earn  and spend daily, and save whatever is left. Hence due to the lockdown their source of daily income was completely abstained. Many customers who daily visit brothels of GB Road come from outside India. In this fatal situation of Covid-19, to prevent the infection, the police have declared strict instructions of not allowing any outsider to this area, which strained  whatever income may be left for the sex workers of G.B. road.

The plight of invisible others

People often manifest the epitome of unity at the time of storms especially when some outer forces are breaking them, so they come together holding hands of each other to kill the outer forces. The whole world is supporting each other in the time of the pandemic but the ‘invisible others’ are still suffering immensely. One part of the community remains unsupported. “As the world comes together, India’s transgender community fights COVID-19 alone.” says the Amnesty International. Several organizations have expressed their concerns for daily wage workers ( including sex-workers) however, little attention is given to the transgender community in general during the pandamic, hence trans sex-workers remain far from being in the list of concerns of organizations ( government or NGOs). 

Transgenders in India, generally rely on begging and sex service as most remain uneducated or lack opportunities due to their gendered identity. The third gender’s survival depends upon following a tradition of bestowing blessing by  visiting the houses of individuals who have newborns or wedding in their houses. But in the time of pandemic when we are following social distancing and isolation, their earning has become totally zero. Hence most transgenders are combating to make ends meet. The new economic package, announced by the Indian government (approx. USD 22 billion) provides measures to succour the vulnerable groups except 490,000 members of the obliterated clan i.e. transgender community. The trans sex-woker community is paying a much higher price, by being ostracised due to their occupation and their very gendered  identity. Alongside the troubles of binary sex-workers, trans sex-workers do not have necessary documents like Adhaar card, voter ID or bank account in their real name and gender to recieve food and other resources provided under government’s relief packages. 

How does it feel to live in stigma ? What does separation imply for such segregated beings? It is all similar in other countries too like Pakistan. Transgender Rights Activist, Julie Khan, in an interview with The Centrum Media,  in the series, Naked truth with Julie, says “ in the time of Corona when it has been declared to isolate yourself and maintain social distancing, then think about our lives, who are already living in Isolation since birth. We are not living with siblings and parents. If I ask someone to come and sit with me for a coffee? Will anyone welcome and introduce me among their friends? They will just say no, no, she is just an acquaintance...Corona has just entered the world, and gradually you are realising the agony of being alone, now face this isolation, how do you all feel about it and then tell me?”

In the time of the global pandemic, what are the other alternatives literate and civilised folks have in their mind? Where everyday citizens of the nation have an upper hand on switching jobs, sexworkers (Trans or Binary) have little to no option in terms of employment. The  very stigma and discrimination make sex workers’ condition pathetic. They lack access to sanitation facilities making them more prone to communicable diseases. Sex workers too should get all the amenities and resources in general and not just to survive this global pandemic. As the rest of the world is fighting the COVID-19 outbreak, the sex-worker community, especially in India, continues to struggle through the layers of discrimination and centuries of a different quarantine that has been imposed on them because of their outside the normative work. The pandemic may be over in a few weeks as lives resume back to normal, the pandemic of discrimination and marginalization of the sexworker community remains here and alive. 

Image source: Prabhat Khabar 


Neha Verma is an associate for the Gender Equality program at C.R.R.S.S and currently is a faculty member at S S Jain Subodh College, Jaipur. She is interested in working on Gender equality in South Asia.



All the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the article solely belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of C.R.R.S.S, as an organization or to other groups of individuals belonging to C.R.R.S.S. Assumptions made in the analysis are not reflective of the position of any other entity other than the author(s) - and, since we are critically-thinking human beings, these views are subject to change, revision, and rethinking at any time. Please do not hold them in perpetuity.


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