As brothels open up for business, sex workers struggle to earn post pandemic

From precautions to phone sex, the conduct of their business will also see a new change.

Credit : The Better India (Representational image)

Pune: It has been two weeks since the commercial sex workers (CSWs) of Budhwar Peth have resumed their work. But have failed to get any customers. After almost three months of absolutely no business, the CSWs in the red light area of Pune had hesitantly started to work again. The nation-wide lockdown which was imposed to avert coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has badly hit the business market, collapsing the economy in the country. It has especially impacted the women of the red light areas.

While Budhwar Peth was among the containment zones in the beginning, no cases have been reported in the red-light area. Only recently, the area was removed from the list of containment zones. Following this, the CSWs were allowed to resume work. However, they don’t see a scope of bringing their income to normalcy, even now. 


Tough to restart the business

“There has been no income in the last two-three months. Even now, after we have started to resume work, no customers are willing to come here. They fear of contracting the deadly disease. Nevertheless, even the girls are scared to take customers for the same reason. But how much can we restrict or sit at home without business? We don’t have money. We have got a sufficient supply of foodgrains, medicines from the NGOs, and others, but we also need money. We have rents to pay, send some money back home. What if there is a medical emergency?” said a sex worker.

Realising that the business won’t run the same way it used to, before the pandemic, the CSWs are more anxious about the possibility of a decline in the business and their future. “Earlier, the customers would call us and ask for time. Now, after we started work again from the last two weeks, most of us haven’t got one customer. I have in fact called up a few of my regular customers but they are scared because of COVID situation. Jaise saal mein ek baar kuch customers aatey hai, kuch waisa hi haal hai abhi. And I believe this will continue for several more months, it the pandemic is controlled. But I am not sure of our financial stability till then,” said another sex worker.

Many customers preferred to visit the red light area in the night time, but due to nakabandi post 9 pm, that little scope is also averted.

During the lockdown, there were a few hundred sex workers who have returned to their hometown but are waiting to come back to start their business, due to zero income. While, there are several others who don’t have the option to go back to their hometowns, as people there won’t accept them. Hence left with no choice but to survive the crisis here.


Changes in standard operating procedure

The women have decided to not entertain strangers or take new customers. They will stick to their old/regular customers only, even if its for phone sex. The conduct of their business will also see a new change. 

As it is difficult to maintain social distancing in this business, NGOs which work towards the welfare of sex workers, have been counselling them to raise awareness about COVID-19 and measures to prevent contracting it. They are also training them to use technology in the business. The CSWs have bought the thermal machine to check the temperature of their customers, have kept bottles of sanitizer and will use gloves, to ensure double protection. “Before, we would hang out with our customers, go for chai, nashta or chit-chat for some time outside on the street. But it won’t be possible now. We have to limit ourselves on different fronts now,” said a sex worker.

She added, “We will ask our customers to take a bath before the act or use a sanitizer, ensuring hygiene. But there are fewer chances that customers will abide by so many rules. Some might, not everyone will. But we will try to ensure safety.”


Image credit: The Federal


The threat of violating privacy

The sex workers are trying on different means to revive their business, like phone sex. The NGOs have been training them to have phone sex with their customers. Although the women understand the changing scenario of their work culture, many have expressed hesitation and discomfort in it. 

“It is a little uncomfortable to talk dirty on the phone. It doesn’t come naturally. Many of us are not really comfortable with the idea of phone sex. Also, there is a fear of abuse. We can’t deny if the customer demands a video call, but then there is always a fear of videos being leaked. Nonetheless, there will be insecurity about whether the costumers will send full money. What if they don’t?” said the woman.


Need government schemes

The central government had announced a COVID relief package of Rs 20 crore as part of the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Package for distressed families who have been hugely hit by the financial crisis. Tejaswee Sevekari, executive director of Saheli Sangh, an NGO that works in Budhwar Peth said, “There is no scheme announced for these women. They are not even eligible for this package or neither considered for it. The CSWs have suffered a huge loss of means of livelihood during the lockdown. With zero business, many have dried up their earnings. The current circumstances don’t even assure the revival of the business anytime soon. An average income of a CSW was at least Rs 15,000-20,000 before, will anyone give them so much to survive? Shouldn’t the government take the responsibility to provide funds and support them financially?” 

“The national network of sex workers has put up the demand to the government to announce some schemes for these underprivileged women, who are neglected from all schemes otherwise. But this is a difficult time for all and financial needs are more now than ever,” she said.