A long stretch of lane with multiple tin shutters, bright painted walls with designated numbers, and steep stairs is what leads up to the several rooms where self-respect, freedom, choice, and will of women—mostly sex workers—is not accounted for. Garstin Bastion Road, also known as Shradhanand Marg and infamously as the ‘Red Light Area’, houses over 2,000 women across the 96 tightly packed and clustered brothels. While a majority of women at GB Road are sold at a young age to the managers of these brothels, several others enter the profession of sex work because of their personal, financial, and family problems, and sometimes to continue their family lineage.

Two years into a deadly pandemic, several lockdowns, and three waves later, lives and livelihood of many sex workers continue to be at a still. The worst affected among them are the older sex workers of Delhi’s GB Road who have been living on the edge. Standing at the forefront of facing more difficulties, all they yearn for is a decent living and some money to survive on as they try to hold themselves together amid a deadly pandemic.

Mostly hailing from Gwalior, Bengal, Rajasthan, Nepal, and Maharashtra, these women aged 40 and above continue to get exploited, discriminated against, and neglected.

Locked and Lost in the Lockdowns

Lives of thousands of sex workers got disrupted because of the pandemic and during the recurring lockdowns. With their work and mode of earning getting affected, the situation got so bad that managing everyday life became troublesome for them.

"GB Road from the windows of the three-storeyed brothels"

Sapna (40) shares, “Initially when everything was shut, we could not take care of our ‘kharcha paani’ (expenses). The entire system has changed because of Covid as the public has stopped coming here. Things have come to a halt and we are facing the brunt of it.”

Over the last two years, the frequency of clients coming to GB Road has been on the lower side because of restrictions and the scare of infection. “The streets and rooms which were once filled with men have of late been empty and full of piercing silence,” says Rosy (47). She continues, “Because of the situation, no customer was coming and even if a few came, none of them was ready to pay us even Rs 100. It felt exploitative but I was compelled to take and entertain clients for as low as Rs 30 or 50. I was in a desperate need of money and so I had no other option. What else could I have done after all?”

Babita (35), a Mujra performer and a social worker, mentions that the last two blows of Covid were enough to ruin their lives. They were still finding their way out of the damage of previous lockdowns when the third wave of the pandemic came. “Things haven’t returned to normal and are not even a bit close to the pre-pandemic times. We were gathering ourselves slowly and dealing with the problems but with the spread of Omicron, the third wave, and partial lockdowns and restrictions – it is back to ground zero,” she says.

“Nobody wants an aged, unattractive, old woman”

“Things are fine and bearable when you are young, but as one grows old, the days of earning reduce,” says Rosy who hasn’t been able to earn much over the past 10-12 years as “clients don’t give any attention or money to older women.” The buildings and brothels at GB Road are divided into four phases on the basis of age. While one can find a sex worker aged as young as 16 or 18, a major chunk of them lie in the age group of 35 – 40 and above.

"Looking at the world outside"

“In places like these, a woman’s age, her body, physical features, and beauty are what defines their worth and rates. It is their charm that makes them attractive and viable. Over time, most of us have lost our only means to earn because nobody ‘wants’ an aged or a woman in her forties here,” remarks Sapna.

All the buildings with women aged over and above forties have a similar cry and the same story to share. Like them, many have spent most of their life and days of youth at this place. However, as these sex workers grow in age, they are left helpless and unwanted.

Amita, a sex worker in her 60s, tells how no man wants to have sex with her or the older women because clients only want youthful, nice-looking girls. She expresses, “A lot of days are often just full of ear-piercing silence with no one coming to our rooms. Even if a client or two shows up, they visit some specific doors and that is it. This has also been rescued because of Covid. No man wants an aged, unattractive, old woman so who will come to us here? You’ve been here since an hour; did you notice any client till now?”

No money, but several mouths to feed

With no rupee left in her account or wallet, Amita, who lives in a despicable condition, says, “People in the society and the world outside have the assumption that since we are from brothels, we are rich and have a lot of money. But ask from us—those who live here—and we will tell you the reality. We lead our lives with no hopes, let alone all the fancies or money.”

"Stained, shattered, and ironically colourful walls of the brothels"

The pandemic has pushed sex workers into a well of debt and has left them without an alternate mode of earning. Most of them exhausted all their ration and savings during the lockdowns and shared that they had no option but to take loans and borrow money in order to manage their finances.

According to Sapna, everything is getting pricier and more costly by the day and whatever little she earns on odd days is not enough as her expenses and debts have doubled. She continues, “We have to fill our stomachs, feed our children, pay the rent, buy essentials, protect ourselves against the virus, spend on masks, sanitizers, vaccines, and medicines, and also have to support our families back in the village. It gets too much to fulfill all these needs in the meager amount we earn.”

Babita feels that things are never simple for those who have to fend for several mouths and questions, “When we are not even able to afford food, milk, water, and bread, how do we spare money for our children’s education or for the reparation and renovation of our old, chipping rooms and floors?”

The sex workers have on several occasions slept without earning even a single rupee for long stretches of days and “It is only going to get worse,” remarks Amita.

Prey to never-ending discrimination

From hospitals to markets and even ration stores, sex workers continue to get discriminated against and receive an unfair treatment because of their profession and the line of business they are in.

"Veiled unveiled"

“People have a very filthy and degraded image of GB Road in their minds and they only think of it as a ‘dirty place’ or ‘the road of wrongdoings’. For them, if a woman is engaged in sex work, she is wrong, dirty, characterless, and deserves no respect,” says Babita, who has been subjected to people’s demeaning gazes and comments since a young age.

Rosy reminisces how men and other people often hurl abuses and some even assault and hit them. “They (people) also file false complaints and put bogus allegations on us so that we land in trouble. Instead of helping us, the bystanders just enjoy the scene, laugh, and justify the ongoing by saying that we are whores and this is what we deserve,” she shares.

The society disregards sex workers wherever they go because they see them as nothing more than ‘prostitutes’. Their children are met with the same treatment too. “People don’t even spare our family members. They call them names and look down upon them just because we are their birth givers. When the world doesn’t and can’t even respect us, how and why would they respect our children?” Amita concludes.

During the first lockdown in 2020, several NGOs, activists, and the government distributed ration kits to the sex workers of GB Road and also arranged free doses of vaccine and medicines for them. The sex workers, however, share that no other aid or monetary help was received from the government’s side.

Rosy tells that the government distributed wheat, grains, pulses, sanitizers, shampoo, and soap once or twice and did nothing beyond that. With that limited quantity of food, the sex workers could barely survive the whole of lockdown. She questions, “Is it even possible to just live off what they gave us? How can the government expect us to run our households just on the basis of dry ration?”

Though a majority of them have all their documents such as Aadhaar cards, Voter IDs, PAN cards, etc., Amita feels that it is of no use as they haven’t yet received any money or financial support from the government. She shares, “We were told that the government has credited Rs 500 in every sex worker’s account, but till date no transaction has been made. We all even paid Rs 100 and opened our accounts in the post office but we haven’t received any money in that account either.”

Sapna resonates with this and emphasizes on the requirement of money for buying edibles, groceries, tea, and milk, and to pay for gas, water, and rent. She asks, “In order to exist, we need support and money which we haven’t received. So what has the government done so far to make our lives easy? What are they even doing for us? If not the government or those in power, who should we be seeking help from?”

All we want..

The residents of GB Road do not want too much or anything extra from the government or anyone. All they are seeking is the basic minimum to be able to run their homes and fulfill their daily requirements, some respect, and a balanced meal to eat each day.

"Behind the hidden faces"

“Our children should get to work in respected spaces and earn with dignity. Job facilities should be provided to them so that they are able to lead good, comfortable lives and earn a decent living,” feels Sapna. She adds that the government should do something to help them, bring their lives back to normal, and get them out of the loop of no money and employment.

Having spent more than half of her life in GB Road, all Amita wants is to be respected and looked at the same way as other women in the society are looked at. She expresses, “We look just like you and no one can tell we are sex workers until we say it out loud. We didn’t choose to come or work or grow up here but it all just happened. So we just hope to get the same respect in the society, irrespective of wherever we go and whatever we do in our personal lives.”

“We earn and do our work just the way any other woman does. The only difference is that we earn either through sex work or through performing—rest everything is the same. So it is important for the public to change their perception of the women and children of this place,” Babita concludes.

Names changed on request.

All photographs Sanjana Chawla