Hand sanitiser and temperature gun at a brothel in Budhwar Peth, Pune, June 25 (Photo: Getty Images)
When, like most other businesses in the city, the sex trade collapsed in Mumbai’s Kamathi•pura area during the lockdown, Sarita began to look for an alternate residential arrangement.
At least around half, if not more, of the estimated 5,000 sex workers in this red-light area—most of who are migrants from other states and smaller cities—had begun to leave the area. Those who had the money were returning to their homes; others, to alternate arrangements elsewhere in the city; and a few, unable to pay rent, began sleeping in the corridors of brothels they once lived in. “I have never seen a worse period in my life,” says a former sex worker who now works in an NGO that aids sex workers in Kamathipura. “Gharwalis [the women who run the brothels] unable to pay rent to the landlords had thrown the girls out.”
Sarita (name changed upon request) wasn’t particularly hard up. Having saved some money over the years to tide over bad days such as this, she moved to a house owned by a friend in a distant suburb in the city. She wasn’t particularly worried either. “I used to tell my friends: ‘Don’t worry. This is the oldest profession in the world. Whatever this virus is, everything will become normal soon’,” she recalls.
The months passed, and along with it, her optimism. She wor•ried for her future as the number of dead and infected rose across the country. She began to take small loans, even sold some gold jewellery she owned, to send money to her family in Karnataka. “I never thought it [the pandemic] would go on for this long. I was worried if I could ever return to my work,” she says.
A few weeks ago, as the rest of the city gradually unlocked itself, Sarita returned to a Kamathipura she could no longer recognise.
Over the last few months, several countries and health experts have issued guidelines and recommendations when it comes to people having sex during the pandemic. Canada’s chief public health officer, for instance, suggested people should preferably engage in sexual activity with the lowest risk, one that ‘involves yourself alone’. Or, in the event of sex, especially with somebody from outside their quarantine group, to skip kissing and to keep their masks on. In England, according to the latest guidelines, couples who don’t live together can now have sex (previously, it wasn’t allowed unless their two houses came to form a quarantine bubble) but only if they are in an ‘established relationship’, ruling out any form of casual sex.
Commercial sex workers have suffered during the pandemic across the world. But in India, where sex work carries on in a some•what grey legal area and whose workers constitute a very margin•alised section of the society, the suffering has been especially hard.
“Most sex workers don’t really have any savings. The govern•ment didn’t help either. And many of them don’t have ration cards or ID proofs to go collect rations or benefits the government might provide,” says Seema Sayyed, the manager of Aastha Parivaar, an NGO that works with Kamathipura’s sex workers. An exodus took place in red-light areas across the country, she points out, with many joining the ranks of migrant workers walking their way to their villages. Those who stayed back had to depend on ra•tion supplies delivered by NGOs. A few days ago, after a collective of sex workers, Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, appealed to the Supreme Court, the latter directed state governments to provide dry ration to all sex workers without asking for ration card or other identification proofs.
Kiran Deshmukh, a sex worker who heads a group represent•ing sex workers across eight states in the country (the National Network of Sex Workers), describes walking through Sangli’s red-light area once the lockdown was announced in March, try•ing to survey how many sex workers would require help from the NGOs. “One girl asked me how long this would continue. Although the lockdown was announced for three weeks, we had heard from the NGOs who work with us that if the virus isn’t brought under control, it might go on for two months or so. So when I told this to that girl, she became very depressed. She kept saying how will I manage if this happens,” Deshmukh says. The woman was in her early 30s, with a child and fam•ily members in a village in Karnataka. The next morning, Deshmukh describes, the woman had arisen before anyone else had and set herself on fire. “We couldn’t even find an ambulance to take her body home. We eventually had to go to an NGO to help us,” she says.
Some sex workers tried to raise money by providing phone sex (either over the phone or video). But this, as Ayeesha Rai, a sex worker in Sangli who also works as a coordinator for the National Network of Sex Workers, describes, didn’t really work. “Some feared that their videos would be leaked online. And in some cases, the cli•ents didn’t pay,” she says.
A number of studies and surveys look•ing at sex work during the pandemic didn’t help either. A modelling study authored by Harvard Medi•cal School and Yale School of Medicine scientists, much criticised for its methodology and its lack of understanding how sex work operates in the country (and which Yale School of Public Health later promised to review), claimed that shutting down red-light areas in Mumbai, New Delhi, Nagpur, Kolkata and Pune could reduce the number of new Covid cases by 72 per cent in a period of 45 days in the country, and recommended they remain closed indefinitely. Another study, this one a survey conducted at Pune’s Budhwar Peth, considered to be the country’s third-largest red-light area, found 99 per cent of its respondents wanting to move out of sex work to find other jobs. “Such a survey never really tells you anything. If you go at a time when they have no livelihood and ask if they want another job, obviously they will say yes… They [the researchers] say rehabilitate them. But who is going to give jobs to 3,000 sex workers to sustain them? And have they even really asked them whether they want to leave their jobs? Sex work is their job and red-light areas are their workplaces. Why doesn’t anyone look at it this way,” says Tejasvi Sevekari, the head of the NGO Saheli, which works with sex workers in Budhwar Peth. “It [the studies] shows the negative perception even academ•ics and researchers have towards sex workers.”
There were also false rumours of some sex workers having contracted Covid in this area, and others in the neighbourhood began to pressure for the brothels to remain closed indefinitely. A few weeks ago, when four people living in this area (two women who ran the brothels and two men who ran small eateries) became infected and died, many sex workers became worried. “There’s just been so many rumours all this while, with so many wanting this place to shut down that many of them naturally began to worry,” says Sevekari.
“Hum log raat ki rani hai (we are the queens of the night),” says Deshmukh. “But now we have to shut everything by 7 pm.”
Earlier this month, Deshmukh joined a few sex workers in Sangli to resume work. “What can you do?” she asks. “You can’t remain hidden forever.”
In Sangli’s red-light area—a once thriv•ing area which lies on the highway con•necting Maharashtra with Karnataka and caters mainly to truck operators—a new set of social-distancing guidelines are now in place.
Every client is made to wash himself under the supervision of sex workers outside the brothels. Inside, a hand-sani•tising lotion is sprinkled across his clothes, temperature is taken (with infrared ther•mometers, popularly referred to as ther•mal guns, that have been provided by the NGOs), and money is exchanged. The sexual encounter is itself kept brief to reduce the chances of infection and at no point does the mask come off. “Two things are compulsory now – a condom and a mask,” Deshmukh’s colleague Rai explains. Certain sexual activities that involve the mouth or kissing, Deshmukh explains, is also strictly prohibited.
Every client is made to wash himself under the supervision of sex workers outside the brothels. Inside, a hand-sanitising lotion is sprinkled across his clothes, temperature is taken and money is exchanged
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Deshmukh has herself invested in a pulse oximeter, apart from an infrared thermometer. “Anybody who has above 98-de•gree temperature, I just clasp my hands and say, ‘I’m sorry, we can’t do it. I can’t take the risk.’”
These guidelines are now commonplace across brothels in most large cities in India. Sevekari’s Saheli, which was among the first NGOs to develop such guidelines for sex workers once Pune’s Budhwar Peth opened up, says many sex workers in Pune now insist all clients take a bath in the brothel before an encounter. Her NGO routinely sends these guidelines, both as audio and video clips, to the WhatsApp accounts of sex workers so that it can be shown both to them and their clients. “We have to remember sex workers, because of their experience with HIV, tend to be far more careful about their health than most individuals,” Aastha Parivaar’s Sayyed says. “In fact, even in this pandemic, you can count on them to be far more vigilant.”
But even as brothels slowly begin to reopen, they find their sur•roundings transformed. The number of clients arriving at these places has thinned. Rates are being haggled and being further brought down. And others in the neighbourhood unconnected to sex work now look at them with suspicion. They are being egged on by people who want to use the outbreak as a pretext to close down the brothels and open it up instead for real estate projects.
In Mumbai’s Kamathipura area, there is now a campaign to close down brothels. Earlier, during the lockdown, individuals were posted outside brothels to turn away any client who might show up. Now they have begun coordinating on WhatsApp groups, petitioning authorities, and a few weeks ago, they put up posters across the neighbourhood warning clients from visiting the area. Rukesh Girolla, a local connected with organisations that hosts Ganapati celebrations in this area and who is part of the cur•rent campaign, wants sex work to be forbidden in this area indefi•nitely. Pointing to the study which claimed allowing red-light areas to function would lead to spikes in cases, he says, “It is dangerous for the city. Even during the lockdown, they were open [for sex work]. Now more clients are coming putting all of us in danger.”
Sayyed points out this is part of a long campaign, pushed by land sharks who are eyeing this vast piece of land in the heart of the city. “Covid is just an excuse. Everybody really wants the land here,” she says. Just a few days after the posters went up, most of them were soon found ripped apart.
Far from sex work disappearing, many believe the number of sex workers will only increase. “Whenever there is an earthquake [in a nearby area] or sudden poverty, we have always seen more women join sex work,” says Sayyed. “With many losing jobs now, more women will join this field.”
In Sangli, Deshmukh talks about the difficulties she experienced during the lockdown. Putting it in relation to her neighbours, she says it wasn’t really so bad. After running out of the money she had saved, she sold her jewellery and took some loans. Her 22-year-old son, who lives with her, lost his job in a nearby office. But things have begun to gradually look up. Although she occasionally worries about the future of her profession, her son has found a job again.
Now back in the field, her mind often turns to her grandson. One of her two married daughters gave birth to a son during the lockdown. “I’m dying to meet him,” she says. “But I will wait till next year until this whole thing [the outbreak] dies down.”