Bhopal:Gunja, who says she is 16 years old, lost her mother during the COVID-19 pandemic. Her mother was working as a domestic help and lived at DIG Bungalow locality in Madhya Pradesh’s capital, in a rented room with her two children.
The sudden loss of her mother left Gunja and her 11-year-old brother anchorless and penniless. For almost a week, the siblings were dazed by the tragedy that had befallen them. They had no relatives to support them in this hour of misery. Their father had abandoned them when Gunja was very small. She says she never felt so helpless and alone.
For a few days, a neighbour supported the sibling. “But for how long” says Gunja, who had no time to mourn the death of her mother, as she had to find a job to feed herself and her brother as well as pay rent. She tried to turn to her mother’s profession, but the house owners turned down her offerowing to the fear of contracting the virus infection.
It was then that, Kajal, 20, a girl next door, approached Gunja. Shegave her some ideas to earn ‘quick’ money by entering the flesh trade. She enticed her by showing her some glimpses of ‘glamour and money’.
Left with no option, Gunja fell for Kajal’s words and became a sex worker.
“Due to the COVID-19-inducted lockdown and fear of contracting the illness among people, Gunja got fewer clients, yet she earned nearly Rs 40,000 in the last 45 days. She might earn more when the situation becomes normal,” said Savitri, ‘caretaker’ of Gunja in the flesh trade in Bhopal.
The stories of Sarita, 34, and Sweety, 36, are a bit different. The two also became sex workers after their husbands lost their jobs during the lockdown-induced economic crisis. Their husbands worked in a small-scale factory located in Mandideep Industrial Area, 20-km away from the state capital.
Both are housewives and have children. But, when the financial crisis became acute in both the families, they started looking for work, as their husbands hadturned alcoholic. In the midst of this ordeal, the two women came in contact with a middle-aged sex worker, Samiksha.
Samikshapersuaded the duo to secretly rent a flat near Ashoka Garden area of the city, saying she would “bring clients” there.
“There might be many more women like Sarita, Sweety and Gunja, who have been pushed into flesh trade by the COVID-19-induced lockdown,” said Rajesh Chouhan, project manager of Centre for Advance Research and Development (CARD), a Bhopal-based, government-funded NGO, which works among sex workers in the city. It has nearly 1,500 registered sex workers, mainly belonging to the middle and lower income group.
"We don't have exact numbers, but as ourvolunteers have started visiting the field after the lockdown, we are encountering such cases," said Chouhan.
How Covid-19 Affected Sex Workers
The COVID-19 advisory– two-yard distance, face mask and washing or sanitising hands regularly – is becoming a big problem for sex workers in having any physical intimacy with clients.
“Clients fear that if we have the virus, what about them?” Kajal, 33, told Newsclick, adding that they were taking all precautions like sanitising themselves and the clients and repeated taking baths. “Also, we are engaging only with known clients,” she added.
Kajal, who is in this profession since the last eight years, is a housewife. Her husband is a driver with an LPG gas agency and earns Rs 5,000 a month.
“Running a family of three in just Rs 5,000 is not enough, as we have to pay Rs 4,000 every month as rent. Besides, my daughter studies in a private school. So, to make a living and continue her schooling, I went into this profession, but no one knows about it. I tell my family that I work in an office and they pay me well,” she says.
Talking about after-effects of the lockdown and coronavirus in the flesh trade another sex worker, Manisha, 42, said, “The number of clients has reduced because of lockdown and fear of illness. Besides, our wages have crashed drastically because the pandemic has snatched jobs and hurt businesses.”
Manisha, whose husband is a contractor, says: “At least four clients approached her every day before the COVID-19 outbreak, but now even if one comes, I consider myself lucky.”
The sex workers say regular clients have come to their rescue during the lockdown. While Kajal received Rs 10,000 in advance from a known client, who said he would recover the amount later, Manisha says she has taken a loan from her ‘boyfriend’. “We simply tell our families that we work in offices and got loans from our employers” they said.
Notably, six to seven sex workers in Bhopal have tested COVID-19 positive, though not through their profession, says Chouhan, adding that all of them have recovered.
Note - Names of all the sex workers have been changed due to privacy reasons.