New Delhi: Through a narrow staircase, the 38-year-old woman leads her customer to a small room. While the woman is wearing a mask, the man isn’t. At the head of the stairs, the brothel manager’s wife stands with a bottle of sanitiser in hand — the liquid was thick, so they have diluted it with water, to increase its quantity, says her husband. The customer is sprayed with sanitiser, and he accompanies the woman into the room.
The red-light area at Delhi’s GB Road is slowly getting back to business, after suffering an unprecedented hit on account of the novel coronavirus.
With the pandemic still raging, customers have only just begun to trickle in, and many of the sex workers are yet to come back from their hometowns, where they fled amid the Covid-19 slump.
Plying their trade is a difficult prospect in these times as social distancing, which has become the norm amid Covid-19, is something that’s just not possible in their profession.
Among those still here, not everyone is ready to start accepting customers again.
Others, like the woman mentioned above, say they are worried too, but add that they need money to get by. There are children to feed and educate, after all.
They try to enforce precautions like masks and sanitisers, but the women of GB Road say there’s only so much they can ask customers to do. They know kissing is a potential Covid hazard, as the disease spreads through saliva, but they fear too many restrictions may drive away the few customers they have. “So, nothing is off-limits, despite the pandemic,” a sex worker told ThePrint.
Police say they try to ensure compliance with Covid-19 safety guidelines in the area, but claim there’s not much they can do about what happens indoors.
Delhi Deputy Commissioner of Police (Central) Sanjay Bhatia told ThePrint that the opening up of brothels is a choice made by the sex workers.
As far as customers not wearing masks are concerned, Bhatia says there is little they can do about transgressions in private spaces. “We regularly patrol the lanes here, and, just the day before, we charged around 117 people for not wearing masks, but we can’t control anything inside the premises to ensure compliance unless there is a complaint filed by someone,” Bhatia added.
Delhi’s ‘pleasure district’
Delhi’s oldest red-light area, which stretches from Ajmeri Gate to Lahori Gate in the capital’s central district, was renamed Swami Shradhanand Marg in 1966. But it is still largely known by its old name — GB or Garstin Bastion Road, a name that reportedly traces its origins to a British-era commissioner who unified five brothels into one red-light area.
It is home to an estimated 1,200 sex workers. GB Road is not alone in its struggle to find its footing in the wake of the pandemic. Sex workers around the world, although scared, are looking for ways to get back to work while staying as safe as possible.
Within India, Pune’s Budhwar Peth brothel reportedly has a series of guidelines in place, thanks to the local administration, NGOs and the sex workers, as business starts again. Customers ought to be advised to take a bath before sex, and masks and gloves are compulsory during the act.
Women have also been advised to not entertain customers with a cough or fever, News18 reported this week.
Delhi’s second sero survey revealed last month that the maximum exposure to the coronavirus was reported from the central district, with antibodies found in 27.86 per cent of the participants. However, there has been no reported case from GB Road, said the women who spoke to ThePrint.
A lot of stories
Sitting near Kotha No. 50, a group of three women discussed how they are no longer left with any savings or money to send home. All of them are decked up, seemingly to entice customers, but refuse the offers of at least two men “who want to go upstairs”.
“We have remained safe for months, can’t risk this corona infection,” said one of them, a middle-aged woman who says she has been in the business for three decades. She began turning tricks after her husband left her, she added.
The 38-year-old woman mentioned above earned Rs 200 from a 15-minute encounter with the man without a mask. After he left, she stuffed one Rs 100 bill into her blouse and placed the second one on the table — the managers’ cut.
She is originally from Karnataka and has been a sex worker for 20 years now. She was married at 14, but ran away from her husband’s home three years later. “He was abusive. At least now I can earn on my own and not pay for someone else’s addictions,” she said.
Brothel No. 56, described here as one of the more fancy ones, employs 16 women, but six are yet to return from their villages.
When ThePrint visited, the remaining 10 women were clad in shiny sarees, wearing dark shades of lipsticks — some even had sindoor on. They were all seated on the sofa, waiting for customers. Whenever one arrived, their hands were cleaned with sanitiser and they were asked to leave their footwear outside.
One of the women, a 28-year old Nepalese woman, said her earnings had drastically reduced since pre-Covid times, when she earned Rs 2,000-3,000 per day.
“Ab toh Rs 500 bhi muskil se milta hain, lipstick, makeup kharidna padta hain, nahi toh customer nai ayega (Now, getting even Rs 500 is difficult. We have to buy make-up or customers won’t come),” she added.
Asked how she landed in this line, she said she had fallen in love and eloped with an Indian boy who abandoned her in Delhi seven years ago.
“My family doesn’t know the kind of work I do here,” she said. But, in pre-Covid times, “I would put some money in their accounts”.
‘With a little help’
Through the tough lockdown times and even now, the women of GB Road said, their struggles have been eased by the generosity of people — those known to them as well as complete strangers.
Some women said they have been unable to pay rent for five to six months, but their landlords have been “understanding”.
There’s also been a lot of help from NGOs, police personnel and old customers.
DCP Bhatia said NGOs like Hamari Pehchan and Abhinandan have helped them ensure regular distribution of ration kits — including rice, lentils, oil, flour and salt — among the women here.
The residents have also been provided with LPG and other essentials like medicines and sanitary napkins.
“Pehle ka customer bhi aake deke jate hai paisa. Police wala, do-teen hain, pucchta hai kuch chahiye hai toh bolo. Baaki public support karta hai (Old customers come and give us money. Police personnel, there are two-three, also ask us if we need anything and help us. The public supports us too),” said a 45-year-old who works at Kotha No. 50.
“NGO wale aate rehte hain ration wagera dene ko. Public nai help karti toh humara kab ka bhuk mein maut ho jata (People working with NGOs keep visiting to deliver rations. If the public hadn’t helped us, we would have died of hunger),” she added.
‘Want alternative source of income’
Although grateful for the help, many women say sex work is not something they want to continue doing. The lockdown has once again triggered old concerns about the lifestyle — only, they have gained a greater urgency with the shutdown of schools forcing their children, even those sent away to boarding schools, to be at home all the time.
At Kotha No. 58, a 9-year old child was trying to study on the bed inside a tiny room on the third floor of a building where the lower two floors are allotted for business. The top floor is allotted to the women, where they cook and wash, and their children study and play.
Speaking to ThePrint, a 45-year-old sex worker from West Bengal said she was worried her child will come under the “wrong influence here”.
“We want the government to help us with houses elsewhere. If we had the money, we would have moved out by now. How will my daughter study here?” she said.
Her daughter is enrolled at a boarding school in Greater Noida. With the school still closed, she has been attending online classes through a phone provided by the NGO Kat-Katha.
A 38-year-old woman said most women at GB Road want to leave. “Main guarantee ke sath bol rahi hu, yahan ke 90 per cent aurat ko profession change karna hain, abhi toh income band ho gaya na (I can guarantee you that 90 per cent of the women here want an alternative form of livelihood, our income has come to a standstill),” she added.
Another sex worker from West Bengal, aged 33, stays at the kotha with her two daughters, aged 4 and 1, and said she is in dire straits.
Her elder daughter is physically challenged. “She got jaundice after birth, so she is like this,” the woman said. “The doctor had said before the lockdown to get her glasses, but I haven’t been able to manage it yet,” she added. “There is no income.”
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