'This Society Has Maligned Us': Sex Workers Speak Out on Lockdown
The government gave us breakfast for the first 15 days
There is a story behind everything.
“We people set up this organisation ourselves in Mumbai in 2002, from our own savings. We all are the same community of people, who join and open this organisation for ourselves and women like us. We had to fight for ourself because there is no one who will fight for us. The name of our organisation is Aasha Darphan. I am its president and my name is Devtha.
We opened this organisation for those women who are suffering or had suffered a lot in their life; we give them work, especially those women who don’t want to do this work, we give them work in our organisation so they can come out from this field if they don’t want to live there, just like we came out.
When I was in this field, I felt there was no one who will think about us.
We have made a group of 12 people with two leaders to guide each team. Whenever any problem arises, we ourself solve our problems. We run projects on like HIV:AIDS to give them knowledge of safe sex, or sex education; we give them condoms, provide them their necessary things. We admit their children to school for better education; we also give training to the girls and women who want to come out from this place.
Nobody thinks about us, all these things. We are also human beings, we also live a normal life.”
Punam* is a 45 year old woman who also works in Aasha Darphan after leaving that field.
“I married at the very young age of 19 in an old temple by my own will. It was my love marriage. My family didn’t support me, and after just a few months I had to leave my husband as he would drink every day and beat me. He made fake promises to marry me; he was already married; he lied to me about everything.
I was very upset and worried, and his wife was also suffering a lot because of all this. In the end we were both suffering a lot from his lies, and I would see his wife upset because of me, so I decided to leave him. As it was a love marriage and done by my decision, my parents didn’t support me.
When I left my husband I was 20 years old. I asked a woman to help me find some good work, she promised me she would. I came to Mumbai with her all in hope but there I realised she had sold me to a woman in a redlight area and left me alone there. I was not aware of this work nor had any knowledge about all this, but she knew everything. She also promised to give me good work and brought me here. Once again my trust was broken.
I had studied a little bit so I requested that lady to let me go; I said I would return all the money she had spent for me; I was not ready for this work. I requested that woman to please let me go, but she refused and told me ‘Nhi beti tmhe yehi kaam krna hoga’ (No, beti, this is what you will have to do). She wouldn’t let me leave and finally I lost all hope, and told myself to let it go, it’s written in my destiny.
At first I would just sit in a corner not understanding anything. Men would come and women would take them inside their room; it was a whole different world I would see all day. I tried my best to leave that place but I failed every time and there was no way to escape. She kept a person to watch me so I wouldn’t run.
I did not agree to do this work so they would transfer me from place to place, telling me if you won’t work here we will keep transferring you till you are ready for it. I was mentally forced to do this.
The life I spent there was the worst part of my life; always drunk customers would arrive to sleep with us and they behaved like animals with us. They always created a scene while wearing condoms; they don’t want to use condoms.
After a few years of working in this field, I fell in love with a customer and I married him. He was very good, we both shared our thoughts, his behaviour was nice, and slowly I started forgetting everything about my past. Then after my first child he just changed, started behaving in a wrong way, used to beat me after drinking. Then I left him too.
After all this I left this work, because now I am a mother and have to look after my child. I started working in the organisation, and now I am secretary of this organisation. We provide them medicines if they have any health issue, we take them to hospitals. I have been working here for 15 years. When I was still working as a sex worker I worked here as my part-time job.
In this pandemic situation the sex workers are facing a huge loss, as their work is all about touching each other, and this disease is spread by touching. To keep themselves safe weve told them not to take any customers for now, because we don’t know from where they are coming. It’s spreading a lot in Mumbai.
We guide them to sell vegetables, newspapers, clothes or whatever they want to do - work as a maid somewhere, but leave this work. Now you guys will earn less but at least be safe and secure.
We provide them with rations and they also have their savings, which they are using and earning somehow. Now I work for those ladies who want to come out from this place. It’s not neccessary that sex workers have to do sex all the time. They can perform more duties in society and be independent in their life.”
Sumitra* is 35 years old and has lived alone in Mumbai with her two children since divorcing her husband thirteen years ago.
“We are all empty for three months. We need work, we are ready to do any work, we are earning just for our children and family but due to this lockdown we don’t have any money to survive or to send home.
I got married when I was 17 and after a year I had my first child. It was my love marriage. At first he was good, we were together 8 years, but after I had my second child he married someone else so I left him, and went to Mumbai with one of my friends to earn.
I worked in a bar for six months then I shifted to a lodge - we used to call customers into the lodge. I worked like this for a year and at first felt very shy and uncomfortable with this work. I wouldn’t be able to sleep all night, just thinking where I am and what I’m doing. I cried a lot but I didn’t have an option, with two children whom I have to take care of.
Then I shifted to the redlight area in Mumbai and have been working here since. But I hide my identity from everyone in society, my family, my relatives, because they will never understand our situation.
Once a customer did a deal to stay the whole night with me. We were to do sex three times but after the second time he fell asleep. He was sleeping on the bed and fully drunk, so I slept on the floor, but when at 6 am he got up he started shouting at me: ‘I paid you to sleep with me, why did you sleep on the floor?’
While shouting he took out a knife to cut me, I hadn’t seen the knife last night, I was very scared. I requested him not to do anything and I handled him with love, I slept for half an hour beside him, we made love and then he left. This was the worst day of my life in this field.
Once another customer was there, he was good natured, he knew everything about me. He worked in the army and would visit every 3–4 months. Once he said to me ‘Sumitra, my wife passed away from cancer so will you marry me?’ He told me to leave this work and come with him, saying he would send money to my family and children every month.
But he is a well educated person and a government officer, and I am a prostitute. I tell him ‘See, I am working in this line for 13 years. If you take me to your home and a relative or anyone recognises me in front of your family, what will happen? What will you do?’
Thinking about all this I took a step back. He requested me a lot but I refused him. He would call me sometimes asking about my well being.
We do this work just for earning more money. We always have a fear inside us: what if someone recognises us in a public place? We can’t share our identity with anyone just because of this society. This society has maligned us. I also want to live my life like a normal housewife; this is the only desire in my life.
When this lockdown happened we thought it’d be a matter of 10–20 days, but with this disease spreading day by day we stopped our work. We get rations from different organisations and NGOs but we don’t have money for ourselves: if we want to eat something we want we cannot because we don’t have money.
I love drinking tea, and to drink tea in the morning and evening I need 20 rupees. So where can I get this 20 rupees? Whatever savings I had I’ve sent home now. I don’t have any more money to spend or send for my family. The government gave us breakfast for the first 15 days - but what about later?
We have a place to live, water to drink but we don’t have money to survive. We are searching for work, people are not keeping us as maids. I want to find some good work so I can leave this field, but I haven’t studied anything so it’s difficult for me to find good work. We are dying from hunger due to this coronavirus.”
Asfia Hayat Khanam is an undergraduate at the Aligarh Muslim University and an aspiring journalist