Night and weekend curfews spell trouble for sex workers

‘People are not allowed to go out between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. or on the weekends, how will we get patrons?’

April 18, 2021 12:35 am | Updated 12:35 am IST - New Delhi

The 2020 lockdown had left the sex workers with little to no work.

The 2020 lockdown had left the sex workers with little to no work.

Still recovering from the impact of the lockdown and subsequent restrictions from last year, Delhi’s sex workers have been dealt another blow with the city government announcing night curfews, weekend curfews and other curbs to stop the resurgence of COVID-19 cases in the Capital.

The exodus of migrant workers — their core clientèle — during the 2020 national lockdown left them with little to no work. Left with no other choice and facing starvation, sex workers slashed their fees by up to 75%.

Just as business was beginning to pick up, the city government last week announced a night curfew between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. On April 15, a weekend curfew was also declared that threatens to erode their earnings further.

“Before the lockdown, we used to charge ₹1,000 per client. After it was announced, fees came down to ₹250 per client as there were virtually no customers,” said Kusum, president of the All India Network of Sex Workers (AINSW).

“We cater to labourers, rickshaw pullers, autorickshaw drivers, taxi and truck drivers. These people left for their villages last year. We had started getting most of them back, charging up to ₹500 till recently, before the COVID-19 cases surged again. The weekend curfew will take away clients who were part of the weekend rush due to the night curfew,” she added.

Delhi’s red light district on Garstin Bastion (GB) Road, officially called Shradhanand Marg, has an estimated 68 kothas (brothels) and around 5,000 sex workers.

Kajal*, a sex worker, said the night curfew had already negatively impacted trade and the weekend curfew would make matters worse. “Over the last week, the number of clients suddenly dipped because of the night curfew. We do most of our business between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. when the movement of people is not allowed,” she said.

“Many regular customers decided to visit us over the weekend, but now weekend curfew has been announced. From our point of view, it is four days – including Friday night – of no work. COVID slashed our income by half and these curfews by another half of what was left,” she complained.

Simran*, who used to work in a brothel on GB Road before the lockdown, has opted to become a “domestic sex worker” — working from a house occupied by other professionals like herself.

“Customers have dipped by 80%. If there were around 10 clients for each girl before the lockdown, that number is now down to two. We fear this will go down to nothing because of the curfews,” she said, adding: “The average factory worker is no longer allowed to step out either at night or on the weekend, so how will he visit? We need help to survive. I do not know how we will be able to feed ourselves if things go on like this.”

Survived on donations

During last year’s lockdown, the sex workers were left to fend for themselves as there were no direct cash benefits transferred to their bank accounts or food kits from the government. They survived on donations from NGOs and civil society groups.

The vaccination drive started in Delhi three months ago but there is no emphasis on prioritising the jab for sex workers, they rued.

“No government helped us back then and no government is doing that now. We survived on donations from NGOs and other groups. This time, not a lot of us have documents needed to get a shot of the COVID vaccination,” Kajal said.

“Even at that time [the lockdown], when neighbours were helping each other in times of need, we were looked down upon because of our ‘dirty trade’ and left on our own,” said Simran.

According to Amit Kumar, country head of the AINSW, the Supreme Court had directed the Central and State governments to provide relief to sex workers in an order on September 29, 2020. “As part of this, dry ration kits were distributed to them for a few months but that too has stopped now,” said Mr. Kumar.

* Name changed on request

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