INDIA: Struggling in lockdown; HeARTshala elicits hope among the sex workers of G. B. Road

By Nibedita Saha

If I learn this skill-based work then I’ll leave that work. I will totally leave the work,” said one of the sex workers who is in her 40s. Home to more than 1200 sex workers, New Delhi’s infamous G. B Road, one of India’s biggest red-light areas, is one of the hotspots of the Coronavirus outbreak.

A stretch of land, more than one kilometer from Ajmeri Gate to Lahori Gate, mostly has two/three-story buildings with shops on the ground floor. As many as one hundred brothels run among these buildings. As the pandemic continues to engulf the society in a slow grip, the brothels have stopped receiving footfalls since the announcement of nation-wide lockdown back on 24th March. As the usual way of income has come to a halt for them, the sex workers of G. B. Road are struggling for their livelihoods from the past three months.

Sabita (name changed on request) has joined a tailoring training program called HeARTshala, organised by Kat-Katha NGO. She has been coming for the training program for the past month in the hope to learn something new. She said,

“I have completed my training of making cloth masks. I make 15-20 masks per day. Though I come a little late around 12 in the afternoon but I stay back till 6 in the evening.”

The HeARTshala is a tailoring workshop/program, where the sex workers are trained to stitch all kinds of outfits, including masks made out of fabrics, as there is a surge in demand now due to the current pandemic. Kat-Katha, a non-profit organisation, is working with the sex workers of G.B. Road on various initiatives; from establishing a bridge school for the kids traveling from the brothels to their new initiative to providing an alternative career option to the sex workers – giving them hope for a more productive future. Prior to HeARTshala, the place used to be an activity center for the locals organised by Kat-katha; mostly kids living in the brothels, providing supplemental education and extra-curricular activities. However, sharing a similar fate to many of these centers, the place closed down due to the pandemic

Image shared by Kat-katha

Through this professional stitching training, I have learned to stitch different outfits alongside making cloth masks. I will continue the stitching work in the future”, said Sabita. Given the nature of their job, even the Covid-19 is gone, the impact of the pandemic will remain for a long time and they will be fighting for livelihood. In a scenario like this, an alternative option of making money through stitching has given them hope. 

As reported by the Press Trust of India (PTI),

60% of sex workers in New Delhi return home due to loss of livelihood amid Covid lockdown, that pushed many of them to the brink of starvation”.

There have been several media reports on how the women in this area are dealing with the lockdown and their worries regarding their uncertain future. Earlier on 26th March, Centre government announced a payment scheme of RS500 per month, for three months, to be paid into the accounts of these women; under the Prime Minister’s Garib Kalyan scheme – Jan Dhan Yojana. However, the workers reportedly said they haven’t received anything.

A Public Interest Litigation (PIL) was also filed at the Delhi High Court, urging the central government and the Delhi government to assist financial aid and social security to sex workers and LGBTQIA+ members in the national capital. The plea read,

“There is no particulars or details found regarding grant of any financial aid and scheme to sex workers and LGBT community people by the Delhi government, despite exercise of due diligence by the petitioner and other people in the society.”

As shared by the Kat-Katha, in an assessment survey conducted among 600+ women, currently 70% of women on GB Road wanted to enroll in alternative livelihoods, as their usual economic activities have slowed down.

Seema (name changed on request), who has been living in G.B. Road for the past twelve years, shared her experience of joining the training programme, said, “I know Geetanjali (referring to Gitanjali Babbar, Kat-Katha’s founder) from past five years. She asked me to join this training as it is a skill-based work. I joined the programme three days back. Stitching is something, which you learn once and can make earning out of it for the rest of your life.

Adding that if she learns this stitching properly then she’ll leave her former work, “I will totally leave the work”, she said.

The majority of the population in G.B. Road is trafficked and it is almost impossible for them to return to mainstream work due to their lack of employable skills, illiteracy and the responsibility of looking after children and family. Over the years, they end up becoming pimps/managers/brothel owners to survive. Their lives become a web of generational sex work, reinforced by poverty, customs and corrupt institutions. With an aim to provide an opportunity to break the age-old web of generational sex work, Kat-Katha has managed to enroll as many as nine women and looking forward to increasing the number.

Shruti, Kat-Katha’s volunteer, who is closely supervising HeARTshala, spoke about the challenges of the initiative. She said,

“Convincing them is a very difficult part as many of the women are facing a lot of problems in terms of learning the skill, which is completely new for them. I go to talk to the women to join us and slowly it is happening. We have enrolled nine women till now who have started the production of cloth masks from 27 May. More five women are supposed to join us very soon.”

Shruti also informed us that Kat-Katha has collaborated with Goonj, an NGO for selling the masks produced by HeARTshala workshop. “Goonj is buying most of our masks; they further distribute the masks to those in need”, she added. The hurdle for the women of G.B. Road is not only learning a new skill but also coming out of the brothels to do something different from usual, as many times the owners do not allow them to go outside. 

One of our trainees left the program because her brothel owners did not allow her to come. So we are also trying to get a new place for the women, who all want to continue the stitching work so that they don’t have to worry for a place to live. Our objective is to create a safe space for women to learn and earn and to express themselves freely”, said Shruti.

HeARTshala has become somewhat a hope for these women, as they are looking forward to leaving their traditional ways of living for a foreseeable better future. 

Another woman from HeARTshala, who also monitors the program talked about the positives impact of the program among the participating women. She said,

“All our work is off because of the lockdown; so we started this new work of making cloth masks to make some money. There are a few women who haven’t used stitching machines before, so it is also a challenge for them. It’s been only a month but they have learned a lot.”

One of our women went home in Andhra Pradesh after leaning stitching here. She brought a machine on her own money and took to her home, where she is doing stitching work to earn money”, she added. 

Stitching being a skill-based work, the women are hopeful that once they master the skills properly, they will leave everything behind, focusing only on their newfound skills for a better future.

I am enjoying the training program a lot as because of this I am learning a new skill and making new designs every day. We have also received rice, cooking gas and financial support from Kat-Katha which is a great help for us. Now we are having this training, once we learn it I would leave that job and continue this. I want that as many as women can come here and learn the skill to progress in their life”, shared a trainee from HeARTshala.

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