Ground Report: The Sudden Lockdown Has Dried Up Sex Workers' Incomes Overnight

The sex workers of GB Road who support themselves and their families through daily earnings, found themselves without any money after the lockdown. Their lives have come to a grinding halt.

New Delhi: On a usual day in a kotha (brothel) on GB Road, in Delhi, 20-year-old Anita* begins her daily routine of applying make-up around 6 pm to get ready for work later in the evening. Attired in a brightly coloured frock or  lehenga, she starts her mujra performance – the dance of courtesans which originated in Mughal courts – around 9 pm, continuing till midnight, depending on the number of customers.

“Just as people get ready to go to their offices or place of work, we dress up for our work of performing the mujra,” she says.

No customers, no money

But for the past 10 days, Anita hasn’t dressed up or put on any make-up. Clad in a plain salwar-kameez, she seems a bit lost. The reason is simple: “No customers have come to the brothel since the lockdown,” she explains.

Anita is referring to the 21-day nationwide lockdown that was announced on the night of March 24 as commencing on midnight, March 25, to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. The suddenness of the announcement saw an unprecedented scale of distress unfold among the poorer sections of society. Hundreds of thousands of migrant labourers in cities who suddenly found they had no work, shelter, money or food, started their long march to their villages, and vulnerable populations in cities experienced a crisis of hunger. One section that was caught unawares by the lockdown but did not come to the notice of many was that of sex workers.

Also read: COVID-19 Fears Are a Double-Edged Sword for the Elderly and Those Who Care for Them

For sex workers, whose livelihood depends on a fast-moving business of daily customers and hard cash, life in the time of the lockdown has been difficult to say the least. GB Road (few know it by its full name, Garstin Bastion Road) has close to 80 brothels, with over 3000 women who live and work there.

Take Anita, who has been living on GB Road for the past two years. The young woman who hails from Palwal, in Haryana, about 60 km from Delhi, is mainly a mujra performer, but on days when there are no takers for it, she does sex work too.

Before the lockdown, she had a steady routine: “I would start getting ready at around 6 pm – put on lipstick, kajal, mascara and get into pretty dresses for the dance performance. I was the happiest while performing the mujra. After dinner around midnight, I would sometimes do sex work too,” she says. But “after the day of the Janata Curfew (March 22) and particularly after the total lockdown was announced, not a single customer has come to the brothel.”

Empty lanes of GB road. Photo: Ismat Ara

For the young woman, the loss of income is a big blow, considering she is the main bread earner in her family.  Having lost her father in her childhood, her family was pushed towards destitution. “After a neighbour suggested sex work as a viable option, I came here and started working,” says Anita. She is the first in her family to take up this job. Since then she has been taking care not only of her old mother but also her brother (a mechanic), his wife and their four children.  Moreover, she has a six- month-old child as well.

“Who would have thought that someday even this work would come to such an abrupt halt,” she remarks.

Not knowing how long the lockdown will continue makes Anita fret – how will she pay her rent and electricity bills; will she be able to buy baby food and diapers for her child?  “I can keep my needs aside, but the baby needs a lot of care,” she says. In the two years that she has worked at the brothel, Anita has managed to save a few thousand rupees. But that will not take her and her family very far.

“My brother and I have no work.  How will my mother manage our house expenses this month?” wonders Anita. When this writer mentioned that  people working in certain fields were working from home even during the lockdown, the young mujra performer wished that she too was in some such job where working from home was an option for her.

Also read: ‘Third World Region of a Third World Country’: How Kashmir Struggles With the Coronavirus

She is only 20, but she already feels trapped. For someone who has never gone to school and is not trained in any profession, including dance, she feels that even if she wants to, she cannot change her profession and choose one where she can work from home in a strange situation like the lockdown.

The story of Anita’s predicament is not unique.

An uncertain future

In a tiny kitchen in her small room, Sunita*, another inhabitant of the brothel, is cooking something special. With a smile she says, “Aaj toh Ram Navami hai, isliye halwa, poori, sabzi aur paneer bana rahi hoon. Aap bhi kha ke jaiyega (Today is Ram Navami and I’m making halwa, poori, sabzi and paneer. You must eat with us before you leave).”

Sunita’s kitchen. Photo: Ismat Ara

However much Sunita may try to keep up her spirits, she cannot help worrying about how long her rations will sustain her. She says, “Lockdown se hum par bahut asar pada hai. Khana peena, ghar ka kiraaya, bijli bill, bachchon ki fees, sab ki pareshani ho gayi hai (The lockdown has affected us severely, affecting our ability to buy food items, pay the rent, the electricity bills, the children’s school fee – everything).”

Sunita is over 30, has three children and works two jobs to sustain herself and her family. She is not married. She says, “On a usual day, I get ready early in the morning for my job at Maitri Meals. I work there from 10 am to 10 pm. After that I dress up and get ready to dance if there are any customers.” Maitri Meals is an initiative started by Kat Katha, an NGO that works extensively with sex workers of GB Road to engage them in jobs such as cooking.

The meal that Sunita prepared. Photo: Ismat Ara

To further augment her income, in her free time Sunita makes what she calls “heart-pins”, or decorative items, that are part of Kat Katha’s projects to provide an alternative livelihood to women on GB Road.

“I have to provide a good education to my children.  I have to work hard to ensure that they come up well” says Sunita, who comes from a  family of mujra performers. Primarily a dancer, she does sex work as per her convenience. She explains that 40% of what she earns goes to the ustad who comes  to teach them dance daily.

Along with Anita and Sunita there are three other women who live in this  brothel. Sunita remarks, “Sab apney apney kamre me darwaza laga ke soyi rehti hain aaj kal. Kya karein, koi kaam hi nahin ho raha hai (All we do is close our doors and doze in our rooms. What to do, there is no work). “

Sunita’s make-up box, which she hasn’t used in several days. Photo: Ismat Ara

Dancing gives Sunita a sense of satisfaction, says the 30-year-old: “Jab dance karti hoon, mann ko shanti milti hai (When I dance, I feel at peace).” She explains that her move to Delhi was prompted by the banning of bar dancing in Mumbai by the state government in 2014 for the second time. Now it seems as if there is no surety of an income in Delhi either.  She voices the worry uppermost in her mind: “What if the lockdown  goes on for months? What will we do till then?”

Sunita mentions that after seeing the dire state of sex workers post-lockdown, the Delhi government helped arrange food for them. Some NGOs too have given them rations. “But how long can we depend on others? We want to earn through our own hard work, not take charity,” she says firmly, wishing that the coronavirus goes away quickly so that they can resume their work.

Caught unawares by the lockdown

Among the NGOs that have been helping the sex workers on GB Road with rations is Kat Katha, which has been working closely with them  for a while now. Gitanjali Babbar, who heads the NGO, says the main problem  for the sex workers was that   they do not have any hard cash or savings. “The women were not prepared for such a situation (lockdown). They don’t keep any hard cash with them. They earn on a daily basis and spend that money. Because of the lockdown, all of a sudden  they found themselves without any money. That created panic in the area. They just didn’t know what to do.”

According to Babbar, police patrolling in and around GB road is more intense than in other places. “Many of the  customers who frequent GB Road  come from outside India. At present, to prevent the possibility of infection which could spread fast, the police has to make sure that outsiders don’t come to this area,” she says.

Also read: South Asian Domestic Violence Survivors in Silicon Valley Grapple With COVID-19 Lockdown

Immediately after the lockdown, many sex workers had no money to run their kitchens, buy sanitary napkins and other necessary items for their children, explains Babbar.  The suddenness of the lockdown created a situation where it was not possible to reach out to them at once. But within two days of the lockdown, several NGOs came together, and with the SDM of Karol Bagh, Ankur Meshram, being proactive, they worked to ensure that enough rations reached the sex workers.

Babbar concedes that although they have managed to provide relief to a fair number of sex workers in the area, reaching out to all the brothels on GB Road is not an easy task.

The life of these sex workers, not easy at any given time, has been made all the more difficult by the lockdown.

*Names have been changed to protect their identities.

Ismat Ara is a mass communication student at AJKMCRC, Jamia Millia Islamia.