Roshni refuses to let you stand at the gate. She welcomes you, insists that you have a seat, offers you a glass of water, a cup of tea before she perches on a footstool in the middle of her white-tiled room in Kotha 40 of GB Road. Her kindness is deceptive of her life as a sex worker that has been ridden with unkind treatment by society since time immemorial.
Despite prostitution being legalised, sex workers continue to live in the shadows of the perceived notoriety of their profession.
While walking across GB Road, Delhi’s red-light area, it is almost impossible to figure out the location of brothels, in between shops of all kinds, until one spots women peering out of small windows. Direct eye contact from passers-by makes them recede into the darkness of their rooms.
The freedom to pursue their procession, and dignity of work is still a distant dream for sex workers.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, sex workers, whose profession relies on physical proximity, were stripped off of their source of income.
To ensure that sex workers' right to life and livelihood with dignity from the adverse impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the resultant lockdown was protected, the National Human Rights Commission in 2020 had issued an advisory saying that sex workers be categorised as “registered, informal workers”.
However, a few months later the terminology was changed to “sex workers, on humanitarian grounds, may be provided the benefits that informal workers are entitled to during the Covid-19 pandemic.”
It is this reluctance to recognise sex work as work on part of the authorities that forces sex workers to continue to live “in shame”, says Kiran Deshmukh, a Sangli-based sex worker.
“The NHRC launched an advisory in the benefit of sex workers, but how long did it last? They changed it before the general public could even process the possibility of treating our profession with dignity,” says Deshmukh who has been in the profession for over 30 years.
“How will the public think of us respectfully, if the authorities themselves are not sure?”
To give an example, she narrates an episode from less than a week ago.
A few local goons came to the brothels in Sangli demanding donations for the Ambedkar Jayanti celebration, and when the sex workers refused, they started harassing them.
When Deshmukh, who now also works for the community’s welfare as a member of the Vaisya Anyaya Mukti Parishad (VAMP), along with a few sex workers went to the local police station to register a complaint, they were met with a “lecture” form the assistant superintendent of police over how their profession is “morally wrong”.
“She (assistant SP) told us we should take up other jobs in construction, and other forms of manual labour if we wanted to be respected. If educated people at high posts think like this, what can we expect from others?”
Ambedkar Jayanti celebrations in the area have been a bone of contention for decades.
For years, Deshmukh says, sex workers were forced to pay donations for the celebrations by local goons and politicians but were not allowed to be part of it. When rallies would be taken out on the road, they were barred from even watching it.
“So, about 10 years back, we decided to hold our own Ambedkar Jayanti. After all, Babasaheb belongs to everyone,” she says.
While they did manage to reclaim their right to celebrate Ambedkar, it is a far cry from their treatment as equal citizens of the society.
After climbing a steep flight of stairs up Kotha 21 on GB Road, you arrive at Shakeela’s doorstep who sits on the floor speaking over the phone. After finishing the conversation, she rummages through a pile of clothes brought in by a vendor. She says she shares the room with four other women, all of them from Bangalore.
Unlike her peers whose smiles flatlined, Shakeela is unfazed at the mention of dignity and society’s treatment of her work.
Sure, she took up the profession 15 years back under compulsion to make ends meet after her husband died, but she does not regret making the decision.
“My work is like anyone else’s work. I am in it out of my own volition. I am not ashamed of it,” she says.
During the Covid-19 induced lockdown, some civil society organisations had offered her and some other sex workers an alternative job of making masks to make a living, but Shakeela had refused.
“I like my job. I had decided I would go back to my village if survival became impossible, but I would not do anything else,” she says.
Due to the lack of support and respect from the authorities, and society in general, sex workers have often resorted to resolving their problems themselves and often covertly.
Amit Kumar, the coordinator at the All India Network of Sex Workers (AINSW) that works towards promoting and protecting the rights of sex workers, says that the community has very little faith in the system.
He recalls an incident from a few years back when he was visiting GB Road where all visitors at the brothels were being patted down in a sort of a security check.
On further inquiry, he was informed that a sex worker had been attacked by a client with a blade injuring her across the face.
“He had allegedly asked her to do some sexual act that she refused and he attacked her,” he says.
The ideal thing to do would have been filing a police complaint but the sex workers did not do that because they expected the police to turn around and point fingers at their profession.
“They deal with these problems themselves, so they did find the man, beat him to a pulp but then let him go. He should have been handed over to the police, but sex workers often don’t want to involve the authorities,” Kumar says.
Baby, another resident of GB Road’s Kotha 40 agrees. She says they get all kinds of customers and try their best to avoid any confrontations that might lead to any jhamela (chaos).
“If we realise that a customer can cause trouble, we return the money and drive them out,” she says.
The relationship between authorities and sex workers is a two-way street. Sex workers' belief in the system is only as strong as the dignity it treats them with.
What is then the idea of dignity for a sex worker?
“A life of dignity for us would be a life where our work is not looked down upon and perceived as a crime. We should be able to work freely, without being shamed. That is the dignity we want and deserve,” Deshmukh answers.