Sarita is worried. She has meagre savings and an 11-month-old daughter to care for, but she may not find work even after the coronavirus lockdown is lifted.
Sarita is a sex worker. She lives in a small room on GB Road, Delhi’s largest red light area. “This virus is worse than HIV,” Sarita said of the novel coronavirus. “It’s highly contagious. Why would anyone come to us?”
There are no official figures, but according to the All India Network of Sex Workers, a community group, there are around 15,000 sex workers in Delhi, and GB Road is home to between 4,000 and 5,000 of them. Since their work had almost entirely stopped even before the lockdown was imposed, many of the women went back to their hometowns and villages. There are still some 2,400 sex workers on GB Road, said Ravi Kant, a lawyer at Sakti Vahini, an NGO that works primarily among sex workers.
In the absence of any income, they are all struggling like Sarita.
In a dingy building on GB Road, Ragini sat crying in the stairwell. She has lived in the area for nearly 30 years. Ragini suffers from multiple ailments, including diabetes, asthma and hypertension, but she can’t buy her medicine since she hasn’t earned anything for two months.
“I am getting food but not medicine,” she said. “I don’t have any money, how do I get medicine?”
In “normal times”, Ragini said, a sex worker on GB Road earns anywhere between Rs 100 and Rs 250 a day “after pimps take their cut”. The income isn’t stable, though, for there are days when they don’t get a client. It’s harder for older women who get fewer customers even on a good day, pointed out Lalitha, who has been living and working in the area for over 20 years.
“But this entire year has been bad for all of us,” she complained. “People stopped visiting in January, when news started coming of coronavirus spreading in other countries. Then the lockdown was imposed. We had Rs 500 or Rs 1,000 saved. That is what we have been surviving on.”
NGOs have been distributing food rations to the sex workers and refilling their gas cylinders.
In the initial days of the lockdown, Lalitha said, NGOs regularly provided food and rations to the sex workers. “Now, they only come intermittently.”
The day Newslaundry visited the area, volunteers from the NGO were distributing pulses, rice, sugar and oil to the women, and refilling their cooking gas cylinders.
“From the government, nobody has ever showed up,” Lalitha complained. “When they want votes, they come running. But now they won’t even show their face.”
It is Ramzan, the Muslim month of fasting, and many of the sex workers have been struggling to fulfil their religious obligation in the absence of proper meals. Zara said she depends for food solely on NGOs. On the days food isn’t distributed, she survives on salt and bread, or water alone. “Kabhi kabhi paani se bhi roza kholna padhta hai,” she added. “Some days I have only water to break fast with.”
Zara fears, as do other sex workers who spoke with Newslaundry, that it may yet get worse. “After the lockdown is lifted, everyone will go back to their normal lives apart from us,” she said. “I don’t think anybody would like to come to us anymore. Now, at least NGOs are providing us food and rations. After the lockdown is over, even they will go away. We will remain here, stuck.”
Asked about the women’s allegation that the Delhi government wasn’t helping them in this moment of crisis, Hari Om, private secretary to food and civil supplies minister Imran Hussain, said he didn’t have information “regarding this particular matter”.
Newslaundry also reached out for comment to Swati Maliwal, chairperson of the Delhi Commission for Women, but did not hear back. The story will be updated if a response is received.
Some names have been changed to protect identities.
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