Posted by A Social Worker in Delhi
I was 9 or 10, when I saw the movie Chameli. In the movie, the lead actress took men to shady corners and would return with some money in her hand. She would dress up in a particular manner with bright red lipstick and bold eye khol. I watched the movie several times but never understood how she earns money. I asked my mother. She told me that the actress commits a sin in the shadow to get money. That day on, I was forbidden to watch the movie again.
Years passed, I turned 15, I read the book 11 minutes by Paulo Coelho and the first line read “Once upon a time I was a prostitute”. This line triggered my curiosity. Although I read the book twice, I was unable to follow it.
Time passed, I now understood who a sex worker is. But I was not convinced with what everyone said and the stigma attached to them. I often went on night drives with my family and saw women standing under flyovers. I could make out their profession. I wanted to stand beside them, listen to their voices and hear their stories.
When I was 20 years old, I had a 26 year old boyfriend. He informed me that most sex-workers in Delhi work from an area called G. B. Road (Garstin Bastion Road). He told me about small rooms not bigger than a train berth where these women would go on with their work. Amidst all the conversations, I still did not realise my emerging passion to help them.
I turned 21 and was pursuing Masters in Social Work from my dream institute Tata Institute of Social Sciences. I came to Delhi alone for the first time in 2018 for internship with Centre For Holistic Development (CHD). During one of the night vigils near G. B. Road, I told the Executive Director of CHD in a low voice that I was keen to work with sex workers. He shared a contact number. But that year I wasn’t destined to meet any sex worker.
Still the urge within me to meet a sex worker never died. During my final year of masters, I had to write a dissertation and chose “sex work” as my topic. I managed to meet and talk to two sex workers. The conversation was restricted as I focused on the dissertation rather than my passion.
I completed my masters and relocated to Delhi to earn a living in the midst of the pandemic in September 2020. On 5th of November, I set my foot for the first time on G.B. Road, after a massive fire broke out in House No. 58. The purpose of the visit was to reach out to the victims and provide requisite support.
6th November onwards my involvement with the sex workers became more intense. Now I could see the truth in what my once beloved boyfriend narrated to me. How small were the rooms? How vulnerable were the women staying and working there? My first interaction with them was on prohibition of clicking pictures without consent.
I continued visiting and helping them in every possible way. The destitute women from the burnt house were forcefully relocated in a nearby government school without care, protection and food. We immediately arranged for blankets to protect them in chilly November nights. We helped all 35 women back to their house. They were left with nothing but ashes and memories. On the eve of Diwali 14th November with help of IYC, we gave the victims basic grocery for a month. This was the beginning of a new journey for our team. Coming from a Bengali family I also celebrated Kali Puja that turned out to be quite different and memorable.
With baby steps we next renovated the entire electrical damages of the affected area. Gradually the women too started understanding my nature of work – that I was employed in an organisation but voluntarily engaged with sex workers out of my own passion.
I continued visiting G.B. Road without any fear. Some nights I had a team of almost ten people and the others I would go alone, aware of the risk involved in this task. I am questioned every now and then; Aapko dar nahi lagta akele iss road mai ghumete ho? Aap yaha kyu aate ho akele? Kisi ke sath kyu nahin ate ho? [Aren’t you scared of going alone on this road? Why don’t you come with someone?]
Soon the women started sharing their stories. “My name is Sushma (name changed). I came with my boyfriend at 13 who was supposed to marry me. He instead sold me to a lady who looked at me like a hawk… It’s been 35 years since I came here. Today, I am not only mother to my own son, but to 40 other women like me, who had been sold by their loved ones and whose trust has been broken into thousand parts”.
COVID- 19 has hit every human hard. These marginalised women who earn their living on a day-to-day basis were struggling to have two square meals a day. To draw attention of responsible authorities we sent a letter on April 15th to Lieutenant Governor of Delhi and District Magistrate of Central Delhi mentioning the issues faced by sex-workers due to this pandemic. After posting this my phone was flooded with calls from leading news channels to ask me if the concerned officials had taken any action. But unfortunately no action was taken.
These women were just recovering from trauma and loss of the first lockdown when Government brought in the second lockdown in the form of night curfew. A business which takes place during evening and night hours could not be sustained in night curfews. The entire Road which was once a vivid area was now empty. Local police had orders to suppress all activities in this situation of crisis. We managed to distribute basic amenities and grocery items thrice in May – 11th, 13th and 21st.
Due to lack of proper information, the women were scared to be vaccinated. We did door to door campaign to create awareness about the benefits of being vaccinated but the fear was deeply ingrained. I accepted this challenge and continued campaigning for more than two weeks and finally managed to convince a good number of them. On June 19th, we vaccinated 150 beneficiaries.
My biggest satisfaction till date is to get Voter ID cards for 58 women living there. In spite of staying in G. B. Road for more than 30-35 years, none of these women had their ID Cards. These were distributed on 15th December 2020.
Every time I visit G. B. Road, I turn a new page of a never ending book. It is difficult to pen down all that one experiences. I remain forever grateful to Mr. Sunil Kumar Aledia of CHD for guiding me.
Cover Image : The Wire
Story Images : Author, CHD
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