How many times, over the past year, have we spoken of job loss or job insecurity? This has become dinner table conversation at almost every home. I would like to ask you, how many times during these conversations, have you spoken of sex work? If your answer is in the negative, is it because it never crossed your mind or because it is uncomfortable? An industry that has completely shut down and the consequences of which have been disastrous has been completely overlooked. But when something has been a taboo topic, never spoken of, and if ever even mentioned has always been in derogatory terms, how can it come into purview now?
When I reached out to women from the industry working in Kamathipura, the red light area of Mumbai, and started speaking to them, I told them they could refuse to answer any question they didn’t want to. In response they said “We will answer everything, we have very few opportunities to get our voices heard and we want people to know our stories.” And they told me their stories through tears.
The attitude towards sex work stems from never having understood it’s dynamics. When I asked one woman what she would like to tell the world about her work, she said, “Our work keeps the girls of the country safe. When men need these services and we are here to provide them, they spare others. These men will say things like ‘Aaj tu maan gayi na toh sadak pe uss ladki ko jaane diya (You have agreed to be with me today and so I let go of that girl wandering on the street).’ And that is one reason why the shutting down of this industry can be disadvantageous.”
Sex workers are human beings who like the rest of the world, are performing their jobs to be able to survive. While some of them have been tricked into joining this world, others have entered voluntarily. One woman, Razia began, “I came to Mumbai 19 years ago, and since then Kamathipura has been my home and my livelihood. My circumstances forced me here. My father had passed away and I had no elder brother to look after me. I was in a state of extreme poverty, with a younger brother and an ailing mother who needed me. A neighbour convinced my mother that moving to Mumbai would give me plenty of opportunities to find work, and so I moved. I was turned down at two cleaning jobs because I was too young, only a 15-year-old at the time. That’s when I was sent here. I earned money to be able to afford food, rent and later, my children’s education. And that is all that I want. The day they are settled, I will leave this work but until then, I will do whatever it takes for me to be able to care for them. Sonia, another lady who had been working in this district and this industry for 15 years said, “I had no money at all and no skills to be able to get any other work. This place has allowed me to survive. I have a 4-year-old daughter but my husband has passed away. My little girl is in the village with my family and I haven’t been able to see her in over a year. I’m still doing this work for her, so that I can give her a good life and keep her as far away from this world as possible. I was petrified when I first came here and even today, if a client misbehaves with me, I am afraid of saying anything in the event that he might rape me.” This is their reality, their lived experience.
Given the nature of their work and the requirement of close contact, the pandemic has pushed them into conditions worse than ever, with the inability to afford basic necessities. Another aspect which has prevented them from having any clients is the lockdown situation where the police disallow people from entering these areas. They fear fines, being locked up, or even their identity being revealed. This job loss has had catastrophic effects on their physical and mental health, along with a myriad other. A field supervisor working with Apne Aap Women’s Collective, an anti-trafficking organization working with women in Kamathipura gave me insights which would have otherwise, admittedly, never entered my mind. When these women have partners, whom they go home to without having made any money, they are faced with increased domestic violence. Some of these partners are alcoholics and behave in ways that are animal. The constant fear of unemployment coupled with abysmal home environments places huge mental stress which in turn has consequences on their physical health. As Sonia told me, “I have been running a fever for months because I am under so much stress all the time.” Paying medical bills is out of reach for them and so the cycle continues.
While a select few organizations have helped some of them set up other businesses like selling tea or food, resources are few. This is where some empathy from the rest of society could go a long way. As the field supervisor told me, “When we ask people for help or for funding, they feel that it is waste and say, ‘What will this ‘dhande wali’ (a derogatory term in Hindi used to refer to a sex worker) do?’ They look at sex workers as sex objects, incapable of anything else and not as human beings.” This regressive, oppressive and patriarchal view is a hindrance, to any aid, progress or growth that they strive for. Above all, to the respect that they and their work deserve.
“Who is not afraid of being disrespected? We just live in this fear every single day” said Razia. At a time when the pandemic has blurred boundaries and brought out the humanity in people, we must look beyond the doors of privilege. If this article made you shift in your seat or wonder why I decided to write it, you are part of the problem. We all are. I hope a follow up to this piece will be on ‘How people came together to give back dignity to sex workers.’
For more information and to provide aid, head to Apne Aap Women’s Collective.
Images: BBC, Leaflet
Note: Names have been changed to protect identities.