A regular evening at GB Road involves men frequenting the lane, women from balconies waving and luring them inside their compounds. These women, sex workers by profession stand in what they called “jharokhas”, or windows and invite men up. But for more than ten days, the roads have been empty. And therefore, the pockets of the women who live there.
In one of the kothas in GB Road, lives *Payal, a forty year old woman who has been working as a sex worker for the past twenty years. “We have never been so dependent on anybody before,” she says, pointing towards her kitchen, with half filled boxes of sugar, salt. She opens a tin box with little ataa in it, and says, “Dekhiya, ye aata aap hi bataiye kitne dino tak chalega? Hum waisey bhi itna kamate nahin hain ki bahut kucch khareed sakein. Jitna khareed sakte the, wo abb khatm hone ko aaya hai. Majboor ho gaye hain.” How long will this flour last? We don’t earn a lot anyway. We’ll soon run out of whatever we are left with us. We have become helpless, she says.
Sex Workers’ Net of Debts
As a “total lockdown” was announced in India on the 24 March, Payal has struggled to make her ends meet with whatever little savings she had. She earns on a daily basis and mostly deals in cash. For the past ten days, there have been no customers. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has suggested “social distancing,” and “work from home” for all citizens. But for sex workers, it has only made things difficult.
Payal, who belongs to a small village in West Bengal, was sold off as a young woman by her neighbour to a kotha in GB road.
Since then, she says, she “slowly learnt to embrace her work”. But she seems to be upset while saying this. “What could I have done, there was no other way. I wasn't educated, nor did I know how to do any other work”, she says.
After many years of saving money off her work, Payal managed to save some money to send her five-year-old son to school. But it was not enough. Last year, when she enrolled her son into a school, even with all her money and belongings combined, she couldn't manage to pay the entire fees. Desperate to enroll her son, she borrowed money from a moneylender who lives nearby. “The admission fee that we have to pay at the time of admission is much more than the yearly fees,” she says. While the annual fee was close to 30,000 rupees, the admission fee was about 50,000 rupees.
She took a loan, which she is still paying every month with her earnings.
“I don't know how long it will take to repay this loan. The moneylender comes here every few days to take some part of it. Last time I couldn't give him anything. He seemed angry. I just don't want to become so helpless that I have to take my son out of school. I don't want him to lead the same life as me,” she says, as she feeds lunch to her son with her own hands, roti and aloo sabzi.
She has a five-year-old son, no husband to support her, and a hefty loan that will take years of her earnings to repay.
Fear Of No Work Even After Lockdown Gets Over
In the same kotha, lives a forty-five-year old *Rohini. She says, “Even if we somehow manage our expenses during the lockdown from our savings or loans, I am afraid that we will get no work afterward because there is a stigma attached with our work. People think we are the first ones to spread any disease. In any case, at this age, it's difficult to find clients. It will be even more difficult now”.
She is also afraid because last month, there was a foreign client that her roommate tended to. “Last month, a man visited. He wasn't indian. He paid good money to my roommate, but she has been very afraid after that day. What if he was carrying the disease? We will all get it.”
Saying No to Well-Paying Foreign Clients
*Kamini, her roommate, is a young fair skinned twenty-two year old who usually tends to foreign customers. She is sitting on a cushion and wearing a casual pyjama with a t-shirt. Her make-up is still on: kajal and light lipstick. She says, “I have always had a lot of foreign clients. But since the virus came, I have stopped taking them. Much before the lockdown, I stopped having any clients because I was afraid of contracting coronavirus”.
Because she stopped taking any foreign clients since February, she doesn’t have any money left on her.
She has a family to support, back in a small village in Uttar Pradesh.
The first case of coronavirus in India was diagnosed at the end of January. This is the third month since the epidemic broke out in the country. For two months, she has not had much work, and as a direct consequence, no money to send home.
She expressed a desire to go back home. “Ghar jaake kucch kheti baadi hi dekh lengey. Yahan toh pata nahin ab kab tak mera kaam band rahe.” At home, at least I can work in the farms. Here, I don't know how long I will be stuck without work.
Monetary, Physical and Psychological Suffering
Sunitha Krishnan, a Padma-Shri recipient and social activist says that sex workers are one of the most vulnerable groups during the times of uncertainty such as this.
“What worries me about sex workers is that they also have additional issues. Practically, all of them are alcoholic. At this point, many of them would be getting their withdrawal symptoms. There would also be a huge number of them who are HIV positive or suffering from other sexually transmitted infections. These are some components unique to this group which you may not see in other groups such as refugees or migrant labourers. So there's a huge medical emergency of sort right now for them.”
The absence of access to medical care, she says, can be extremely distressful for them.
“This is an extremely emotionally defeating time for them. Monetarily, they are obviously suffering, but also psychologically. When you're psychologically depressed, everything else rises up in a big way. Sex work, as it is, is a damaging profession. Today, more than ever, they must be feeling that damage,” she says.
COVID-19 Outbreak May Have Some Important Lessons
Krishnan adds that one particular take-away for those in the profession would be to now seek long term viable and sustainable options to get out of this profession. “They now need to look at options where you have the ability to sanely plan your money.”
She then questions, “How long will they be charitably disposed? Thanks to all those who are doing charity for them, these people are not starving—but this charity is also responsible for depleting whatever little dignity they have”.
She further asks how, in the absence of documentation and identity cards, sex workers would be able to access the help that the government will send.
For sex workers in the GB Road area—at least three thousand of them who live in close to eighty brothels—the lockdown has meant no hard cash, increased fear of finding no work in future, and unpaid bills and loans. They are distressed, even with food and other resources reaching some of them now. “We don’t want to live on somebody’s charity, we want to earn our own money and spend it as we like,” one of the women says, while sharing her insecurities about the lockdown and questioning when it will end. “Hum padhe likhe hote toh ye din na dekhna padta.” Had we been educated enough, we wouldn’t have had to see this day.
*Names have been changed to protect their identities.
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