Braving the pandemic without a voice in mainstream media, the sex workers living in Delhi are fighting for survival, one day at a time. In the narrow bylanes of Garston Bastion (GB) Road, Delhi’s red light area, reside about 3000 plus sex workers in approximately 80 brothels, who lost their job long before the country went into a nationwide lockdown. Left hand to mouth, the women who live in GB Road have not only had to bear the brunt of the pandemic, but also had to battle misinformation, lack of legal rights as citizens of India, and physical as well as mental health trauma.
When coronavirus hit the streets of India, the red-light area of Delhi was one of the first places to observe a rapid decline in customers. Paranoid and uncertain of what was to follow, the women who live in GB Road began heading to their hometowns. Arzoo Jolly, from Kat-Katha (an NGO working with the commercial sex workers and their children living on GB Road), explains that the paranoia was partly due to the incessant rumours spreading like wildfire, ‘You won’t find newspapers at GB Road giving you the right information, nor will you have access to TV news channels.’ In the absence of reliable sources of news, the only means through which information reaches GB Road is either WhatsApp or word of mouth-the two havens of misinformation. Lack of business and customers and an impending uncertainty looming over their lives, many women left, but the 800 plus women who are still living in the pigeon holes of GB Road, face multiple battles, alone.
Despite misinformation with regard to coronavirus spreading rapidly in the area, and no formal awareness drives undertaken by authorities, the women are aware of the guidelines issued by the government. Using separate washrooms, cooking food separately and maintaining social distancing are some of these ideal guidelines, but also impossible to practice while residing in the tiny rooms of brothels. Each room is only big enough to fit a single bed and being confined in the room for prolonged periods of time is nothing less than torture. Social distancing and self-isolating are infrastructural privileges that the women living in GB Road do not enjoy. ‘In a very tiny room, around 20 women would be staying. It becomes very difficult to practice social distancing,’ says Jolly as she explains the layout of the brothels and the living conditions of the women.
Infrastructural setbacks aside, another grave challenge that got magnified during the pandemic was the unavailability of food, ration supplies and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) connections. Even if the women are provided with dry ration kits by NGO’s such as Kat-Katha, without money to buy LPG, they’re unable to cook it. The dry ration is as good as pebbles in the absence of access to LPG. Jolly also pointed out that while working closely with the women, Kat-Katha realised that there were multiple women who still had kerosene chulhas (stoves)-which are otherwise banned in Delhi, a ‘Kerosene-free state.’ In such cases, NGO’s are helpless and unable to provide assistance to the women, who bear the brunt of being ‘outliers’ of society.
Social stigma and pervasive barriers to justice have not only affected the mental health of the women, who have often visited past trauma during the course of the lockdown, but also denied them of legal rights as citizens of this country. ‘We have to realise that these are trafficked women. They lack basic ‘official’ documents,’ says Jolly as she explains the legal challenges faced by the women to avail government schemes if at all they fit under the ambit of any.
Aadhar and voter ID cards-two basic identity proofs are not something that all women living in GB Road possess. Out of the women that do have Aadhar and voter ID cards, multiple face an address conflict, with different addresses listed in the two. Explaining the problem at hand, Jolly says, ‘Women are very conscious of their identity as women living in GB Road. So, for some their Aadhar card says Shradhanand Marg, and their voter ID says GB Road, which then creates a clash.’ Ration cards are another privilege that the daily wage earners living in GB Road don’t necessarily have, ‘Ration cards are meant to be made of families, but how do you expect sex workers to fit in this traditional definition of a family woman?’ asks Jolly. A lot of these societal conventions fall apart when it comes to GB Road, only to pose as hindrances in the thick of the coronavirus pandemic.
Little to no coronavirus testing in GB Road throughout the lockdown and an overburdened healthcare system has left no room to cater to the physical or mental health needs of the women residing here. With two women testing positive for coronavirus around the end of June and customers starting to show up again as the unlock unfolds, Delhi’s red-light area has the potential of becoming a super-spreader. ‘Customers have started coming in again, but women do not want to engage in sex work. Some want to get out of it, and some have just realised the insecurity and uncertainty around it,’ says Jolly.
The need of the hour is to make the women self-reliant and capable of sustaining themselves so that the shackles that weigh them down can be dismantled right at the roots. A lot of the women in GB Road enter sex work at a very young age. Economically dependent on it, they don’t have any other employable skills or educational background. Mentally traumatised, the only option ‘out’ for them is sex work. Misfit in other parts of society, many women go to their hometowns and then come back because there is nowhere else to go.
One may think that the women who have left for their hometowns may not come back and can break free from the tethers of sex work, but Jolly asks an important question- ‘Are they really free?’
Picture Credit: Tamasha Talkies/Samraaj Talkies