For around 657,000 Indian sex workers it wasn't a choice but a compulsion to either adapt to the virtual ways of satisfying their clients or face the threat of barely surviving due to fewer clients amid the fear of the coronavirus spread in the country. From Delhi to Kolkata and Pune, sex workers have shared similar experiences where a deluge of misinformation and lack of support from the government during the pandemic worsened their livelihood.
Speaking to Sputnik, Kamla (name changed), a 32-year-old sex worker in a busy lane of Delhi’s Garston Bastion (G.B) Road, revealed that as the pandemic hit the country she and around 3,000 people like her were cut off from their major source of income.
She explained that until the end of last month, there was no business for them. Customers stopped visiting them at brothels keeping social distancing in mind, while police vigilance was so strong that there was no activity in bordellos across the nation.
Adapting to Virtual Ways to Survive
The concept of virtual sex is not well-known in India and sex workers across the country had never considered taking their work online. However, with the risk of COVID-19 being high through physical interaction, a subsequent lockdown and crisis left these individuals with no other option but to go in for phone or virtual sex.
Somehow they've been able to connect with the customers whose contacts they managed to dig up from earlier visits, offering sexually-explicit live broadcasts to clients through video calls and accepting money via digital payment.
A sex worker from Bengaluru (Karnataka) revealed that many of them are from marginalised sections of society and they did not even own smartphones before the pandemic.
“Over the last two months, with no other option to earn, several have switched to smartphones and have got in touch with their customers over the phone for sexting or virtual sex", she said, adding that clients are happy to pay small amounts varying from INR 100 to INR 500 ($1.3 to $6) for a photo or video show.
She further explained that even these small amounts are of great help to them in these difficult times and the money is collected through digital payment platforms.
Even though the country is in the unlocking phase now, the lockdown has disproportionately affected various sectors of society. The COVID-19 pandemic has completely changed the lifestyle of people, with sanitisers, masks, and gloves becoming an essential part of their daily life.
Keeping the COVID-19 virus in mind and with business slowly resuming, sex workers have decided to entertain only regular clients.
Speaking to Sputnik, Monisha (name changed), a sex worker from the northern Indian state of Haryana said that they have put up some rules outside the brothel.
“The clients will have to wash their body with sanitisers and will have to wear masks and gloves. At the entrance the clients are checked for their temperature with the help of a thermometer. This is to protect us. Our regular customers call and inform in advance as we have completely stopped entertaining new guests for our safety reasons", Monisha revealed.
After the client leaves, the entire place including the bed, door knob, chairs, etc., is completely sanitised.
Debt Trap Despite World’s Biggest Financial Package
After imposing a strict three-month lockdown in March, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a $266 billion financial package on 10 May to support industries, migrant workers, women, and farmers.
However, sex workers in the country are not receiving the much needed support due to legal complexities. In India sex work is not illegal, but police can arrest the people involved in supporting these activities. Also, as maintenance costs jumped due to COVID-19-induced rules, workers have to pay heavy from their pockets because maintaining brothels and soliciting customers are criminal offences in the country.
Workers in Kolkata’s Sonagachhi — Asia’s biggest red light district with a population of over 10,000 — admitted that they have to take loans from money lenders in these challenging times to meet their daily needs.
“The lender is charging 25 percent interest. We have to pay them in installments but with fewer customers, I requested him for longer tenure for repayment", Babita, living in the area for the last 15 years, said.