Covid-19 update: HIV+, stigmatised, GB Road sex workers stare at an uncertain future
A 25-year-old sex worker in Delhi’s GB Road pulled out a Rs 500 currency note from her gullakh (piggy bank) on Tuesday. “This is the last of my savings. Ab sab bhagwan bharose hai (now I have left everything on God),” she says, trying to mask her worry with a laugh.
At GB Road, one of Delhi’s largest red light areas, corridors that echoed with the sounds of bangles, anklets and men haggling with brothel heads are eerily silent these days, the faint smell of jasmine gajras (flower headband) and ittar (perfume) has vanished; the balconies from where women called out to potential customers are also empty.
Sitting in a room so small that it barely fits a single bed and a table fan, the 25-year-old woman and her friends say that since Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown on March 25 they have not earned a single penny.
“The area was barricaded and we were asked to close business. We were hoping that things will resume after a while, but now we do not know how we will survive,” she says.
SELF RESPECT AND HUNGER
In the initial days of the lockdown, a few NGOs and philanthropists had taken care of their basic needs, such as groceries, but as days rolled on these women have been left to mostly fend for themselves. Cash strapped and uncertain about if they will be able to resume work at all, sex workers in the national capital are more worried about their survival than the spread of the highly contagious coronavirus disease (Covid-19).
“How long will social organisations come and help us? Till when will people distribute food and groceries? Ultimately, everyone will be left alone to survive,” says a 32-year-old who had come to Delhi when she was 18 years old. She now has an eight-year-old daughter who is studying in Kolkata.
“I have not even been able to send any money home this time. Starvation will kill us before this illness does,” she says.
HIV AND COVID-19
Delhi government estimates that nearly 986 women are engaged as sex workers in GB Road brothels. The living conditions are unsanitary and three to four women share one residential quarter, just big enough to allow three people to sleep side by side, making it impossible to observe the rules of social/physical distancing—a necessity to keep the viral infection at bay. Many women are also HIV positive because of the nature of their job, making them even more susceptible to contract the virus.
Despite the health risks, women here are eager to resume work but the brothel heads are unsure when clients would return.
“We are hearing that even if the lockdown ends there is no possibility that people would come to seek the services of women here. We have never witnessed anything like this before. Even when the economy goes down we managed to get customers, but times are different now,” says the head of one of the 250 brothels in the area, where the unofficial number of sex workers is 1,500.
Social groups working with sex workers here say that in an unorganised set up such as this, women are highly vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases. Now, they will also run the risk of catching the coronavirus.
“When the lockdown had started, we had gone there with volunteers to distribute groceries. We have asked them to call us if they need anything. These women are considering defiled, but it is the circumstances and society that brought them here (to this profession). At present, we are all responsible for each other. We all need to come together to help humanity,” says Sukhdev Bharadwaj, organisational head (Delhi-NCR) of Sewa Bharti, an organisation that works for the underprivileged.
BROTHELS AS HOT SPOTS
Sakhi, another NGO, which dedicatedly works with sex workers in GB Road, says the government will have to come up with a long-term plan for these women as their business is likely to be the worst affected. The organisation is conducting mental health counselling for the women here to help them tide over this pandemic. In these sessions, many women have expressed fear of the uncertainty of their future.
“These women are not high-end escorts; they barely earn enough to survive. While the government is doing so much for migrant labourers and homeless, no one is talking about sex workers and transgenders (the now officially recognised third sex). The living conditions here are among the worst in the city. If the lockdown doesn’t ease, they are going to die of poverty and if it does they would probably die of the infection; their heads are on a chopping block either way,” says Subrajyoti Sikdar, co-founder of Sakhi.
Sikdar ads that the brothels of GB Road could emerge as the biggest hotspots, if a long term plan is not implemented in the area.
“Many women were trafficked to Delhi when they were children and some have families that rely on them for sustenance. There is a big question mark on what the future will hold for all of them,” he says.
Delhi police officials in the area say that they are dealing with this pandemic “one day at a time” and that they are taking care that the virus does not reach the crowded quarters of the brothels.
“We are ensuring that the area is disinfected regularly and we are also working with NGOs to ensure these women get masks, food and groceries from time to time. If a case emerges in any of the kothas (brothels) it will be difficult to control the spread because of their living conditions,” says a senior police official in the area requesting he not be named.
Delhi Commission for Women (DCW) chief Swati Maliwal says that even though the present circumstances are peculiar, they have directed the Delhi police and NGOs to at least ensure that basic needs of women here are fulfilled.
“According to the report we have received, food is not a problem there at present but the women there are definitely concerned about their income. These are peculiar circumstances, but we are doing everything in our power to ensure that they are taken care of,” Maliwal says.
Despite the ordeal, these women are prepared to support the government in this time of crises. Women here say that when the entire nation stepped into their balconies on April 5 to light candles in a show of support, they also followed the call. “We all came to our balconies, clapped and sang to show our support for our government in their fight against this disease. I am hopeful that things will get better,” says one of the sex workers here.