Sex workers seem to be slipping through the cracks where vaccination against Covid-19 is concerned. Many fear the jab and those who want to get it have no idea how to. Activists, while attempting to eradicate the women’s fears, have demanded that the BMC set up separate vaccination camps for them.
Commercial sex workers in the city must be vaccinated. In fact, there must be a concerted effort to speak to them, by the civic administration in consultation with NGOs working in their areas, in case many have vaccine hesitancy. We are all in this together, and entire sections of society cannot be left unvaccinated if we are to fight the pandemic effectively.
About 17600 female sex workers availed medical check-ups through the Mumbai District Aids Control Society in 2020-21, giving an approximate indication of their population.
“None of the female sex workers that we have been in touch with during outreach programmes in Kamathipura-Falkland Road or Vashi-Turbhe have been vaccinated, nor have the men living around them including their sons,” says activist Priti Patkar. She added that some women may not have any identity documentation. “But there has been no discussion on their eligibility for vaccination,” says Patkar.
Digital literacy in the community is severely lacking. The use of smartphones is restricted to sending WhatsApp messages or watching videos. There is a concern that agents might fleece the women under the pretext of helping them register on the CoWIN app. “But the biggest challenge for us right now is debunking myths. The women are apprehensive that the vaccine will lead to side-effects,” says Manju Vyas of the Apne Aap Women’s Collective NGO. Like it was with HIV years ago, some of the sex workers believe that Covid wouldn’t infect them. “We are sensitising the women about precautions and prevention, and busting false fears,” said Vyas, who teamed up with a tech company and held a session on Thursday registering about 100 sex workers online.
“The vaccine stock is quite erratic at present. Once it regularises, we can plan camps for the marginalised, including sex workers,’’ said Dr Mangala Gomare, executive health officer with the BMC.
“Vaccinating sex workers should be a priority, especially for those having prior ailments such as STDs. It’s also key that vaccination camps are organised close to where the women live as they seldom step outside the red light area,” said activist Dr Swati Singh who has worked for the welfare of sex workers in Bhiwandi since 2018. Dr Singh added that she hadn’t come across anyone who had been vaccinated in Hanuman Tekdi, Bhiwandi’s red light area comprising 350 to 400 female residents.
(*name changed to protect identity)