‘I had nothing left’: loan sharks target Indian sex workers affected by pandemic
MUMBAI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – When Indian sex worker Baji fell behind on her repayments to a loan shark during the lockdown, her house was ransacked and her only personal belongings of any value – kitchen utensils – were stolen. It was another low point in a terrible year.
As COVID-19 reached their income, hundreds of cash-strapped sex workers in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh turned to unofficial lenders to weather the pandemic – most of them they did not have the necessary papers to obtain official bank credit, the activists said.
“I had nothing left in my kitchen the day the lender offered me a loan offer. He had a polite and reassuring demeanor and said there was no rush to return the money, ”Baji, 26, who bears a name, said by phone from Krishna district.
“But he came back week after week. I paid back 1,200 rupees (around $ 16.50) on the consolidation loans itself, but when I quit they ransacked my house and took all my utensils, ”the mother of two told the Foundation. Thomson Reuters. “It was traumatic.”
Before the coronavirus spread to India, Baji was earning up to Rs1,000 a day, enough to feed her children and keep a roof over their heads, but last year’s lockdown pushed her as well. than other sex workers in India and beyond, on the brink.
According to government data, there are around 800,000 female sex workers across India, but activists estimate the number to be much higher. More than 100,000 are registered in Andhra Pradesh alone, according to activists’ data.
Reflecting concern over the plight of India’s informal workers, the national human rights panel called on state governments in October to formally recognize sex workers, a move that would have enabled them to benefit from a fund for sex workers. state aid of $ 23 billion.
But the order was reversed after activists said such a move would be illegal and risk legitimizing sex trafficking.
While sex workers have indeed received food assistance, their lack of income has made them vulnerable to abuse by loan sharks, particularly in Andhra Pradesh where authorities have been trying to contain informal moneylenders for decades. years.
A collective representing 6,000 sex workers in the state said more than three-quarters of its members were in debt. Many live in fear and are daily threatened and abused by loan sharks.
“The lenders are standing in the street and yelling at them, the body shames them. They started to flee their homes, ”said Potluri Devi, who heads the Andhra Pradesh section of the National Network of Sex Workers.
“They are attracted to these lenders because they are not required to provide collateral or proof of identity. They start with small amounts that the women are able to repay. Women feel confident (and) borrow more, ”said Devi.
“This is how they are trapped.”
Authorities in Andhra Pradesh, once known as the center of India’s microfinance industry, have sought to regulate private money lending – widely known as ‘call money’ racketeering because of the ease with which money can be borrowed over the phone.
About ten years ago, the state government curbed microfinance activities after a wave of borrower suicides, and in 2015, it banned pawn shops from operating without a license after arresting around 200 people. due to harassment complaints.
But industry analysts have said unscrupulous financiers – who charge high interest rates and resort to heavy-handedness to collect debts – are in part the result of inadequate legitimate sources of credit in the state.
“These are unsecured loans. There is no one else to borrow money from, ”said Harsh Shrivastava, former director of the Microfinance Institutions Network, a self-regulatory organization in the microfinance industry.
Shrivastava said the situation was particularly dire in Andhra Pradesh because unregistered lenders proliferated due to the vacuum left when microfinance firms offering small loans to low-income borrowers were restricted.
Officials with the state’s Criminal Investigation Department (CID) said complaints against lenders were common, although no specific complaints from sex workers were received.
“Institutional loans are difficult to approach and they are informal and very flexible money lending, despite outrageous interest rates,” said PV Sunil Kumar, additional managing director of the CID.
Lenders routinely deduct 10% to 20% of the loan principal before even handing over the money, sex workers and police officials said.
But because they give loans without requiring collateral or documentation, they are like “god,” said Ram Mohan, co-founder of the anti-trafficking charity HELP.
“Women borrow from one to pay for another. They are trapped in this cycle of debt, ”said Ram Mohan.
Many of those who are behind on their debts are too afraid to go to the police if lenders become abusive or violent, activists said.
Baji started sex work at the age of 17 as a single mother, recently abandoned by her abusive husband, but she had some optimism about the future until her debts climbed at most. strong lock.
After the burglary, she was forced to work in a brick kiln, earning 400 rupees for a 12-hour day.
It was also cut in half after a mound of bricks fell on his leg, requiring surgery costing Rs 20,000. His employer loaned him the money but deducted the reimbursements from his salary.
“We had problems in sex work, but I was winning and could survive and there was hope. I have nothing to hope for now, ”she said.
($ 1 = 0.0138 Indian rupees)
Report by Roli Srivastava @Rolionaroll; Edited by Helen Popper. Please mention the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit news.trust.org