As the tentacles of COVID-19 reach into every crevice of society, we read of how governments are stepping in to give financial assistance to those who find themselves out of work. Welfare payments in varying amounts are paid to those whose employers have had to shut their doors. And yes, some people might be making more from the temporary payment than they did in their full-time job, but they are the exception. Some workers are not getting any help at all, particularly those for whom physical intimacy is an innate part of their job: sex workers.
Garstin Bastion Road (aka GB Road) is a stretch of road in Delhi between Ajmeri Gate and Lahori Gate. It’s named after the British Commissioner who, back in the day, unified the five brothels in Delhi into what passed for the city’s red-light district. And although it was officially renamed Swami Shradhanand Marg in 1966, the name has stuck. It’s the address of choice for 70+ brothels* (kothas) that operate out of the first and second floors of buildings anchored by shops. Opening for business when the shops close, the brothels are home to more than a thousand sex workers.
Some are brought to the city by their husbands and fathers and sold into brothels. But most have been trafficked, snatched from their villages and deposited in the city with little chance of ever going home (98% of the 4 million sex workers in India have been trafficked**). Some come from Nepal and Bangladesh. More come from West Bengal and Rajasthan, home to the Bedia, a caste that lists sex work as a family tradition. Given the choice between the drudgery of marriage or the money and independence that comes from sex work, many young girls reach for their lipstick and hit the road.
A Bedia sex worker earns between Rs 1,200 and Rs 2,000 a day. It is 10 to 20 times the government approved wage of Rs 149.
In the big cities, though, there is no choice. Not for those trafficked into it. One worker, Rekha, who was sold by her father after she’d been raped, said when interviewed:
It was a river of fire on one side and bed of thorns on the other. Where would I run to?
It’s hard for me to understand. Being forced into prostitution I get. Seeing it as a last resort, something you must do to feed your kids, that I get, too. But to choose it freely? I have trouble with that. But that’s my issue. I am the product of a privileged Western upbringing. I’ve never faced such choices.
A report, “Sex Workers on GB Road: Economic Aspects and Prospects for Upliftment”, by independent researchers Divish Gupta and Simrat Ahluwalia and published by the New Delhi-based Centre for Civil Society, concludes that “sex work, either voluntary or a result of trafficking, is the direct consequence of poverty and social inequality prevailing in society.”
Paid-for sex is legal in India. But brothels and pimping are illegal. I can freelance for myself and build my client list, but I can’t have others find them for me. That said, the brothels on GB Road seem to operate with impunity.
Those who lose their attraction for punters go to work in the brothels, cooking and cleaning, forever tied to the life they’ve found themselves in. No one really cared. Until 2011. Gitanjali Babbar, then working as a Project Officer with NACO (National AIDS Control Organisation), got a glimpse of what life was like for women working from GB Road. While teaching the women about contraception and family planning, she saw that for all the talk of helping and reforming and cleaning up the street, no one was doing anything. In 2012 she quit her job and spent a year visiting the brothels, getting to know the women (lovingly called Didis, the Hindu version of the Hungarian néni), and figuring out what they really needed. How refreshingly different from the Western approach of assuming we know best. This was no top-down approach. Using random rooms in the brothels, she began teaching some of the children to read and write basic Hindi and English. These mini-classrooms became safe spaces for the Didis and their children. She slowly built relationships and trust that gave her an insight into the reality of life on GB Road.
Determined to do what she could, Babbar set up Kat-Katha
a non-profit that’s quietly been transforming GB Road brothels into classrooms, community centers, and safe spaces for trafficked women and their children to learn, explore creative arts, and come alive with a sense of connection, expression, and possibility.
The name translates as the Story of Puppets. How fitting, considering how the lives these women lead are very much controlled by others. Today, the organisation works with women in about 85 brothels* and runs the Bridge School on GB Road. Here, the Didis and their children come to learn and train, to focus on bettering the life they have and on a future that doesn’t involve sex for money. Kat-Katha’s mission is to bring an end to sex work, to provide alternatives for the women, to give them an option. Those who are reaching the upper limits of their marketability find it easier to distance themselves, to leave the brothels and move away from GB Road. Those in their late teens and early twenties find it much harder. Their youth still represents unearned income (35% of India’s 4 million sex workers are under 18 years of age).
The school has a training module which focuses on capacity building in academics, cultural activities, technological knowledge and building a value system of love and service.
Here, the Didis and their children interact with people from outside their reality. Volunteers come to teach (they’re teaching online right now) and help them cross the bridge into mainstream society. The kids enjoy extracurricular activities (e.g. professional dance, photography, painting) and the annual Independence Day Carnival, a flagship event which sees GB Road closed off, brings with it a sense of normalcy.
Kat-Katha uses a four-pronged approach it calls RISE: Rights, Integration, Skills, Education. Many of the Didis don’t exist – they don’t have voter registration cards, the golden key to any social right in India. Kat-Katha helps them secure these cards and to take advantage of legal advice and policy advocacy. As part of the integration step,
quarterly mainstreaming events and volunteer programs with national universities [help] dispel misconceptions about people living in the red light district.
The Didis are being trained in skills such as tailoring, bookbinding, and crafts. The Heart Shalla programme, where they make heart pins and jewellery, has been diverted to sewing COVID masks. The end goal is to establish a vocational training centre and develop women-owned cooperative businesses. Only by becoming financially independent will these women get back their lives and have some hope of a better future for their kids.
As a first step, women workers are exposed to intensive counselling sessions to open them towards the idea of building additional skills as life source. Women are professionally taught how to cook, stitch, manage accounts, make art and craft objects and so on. The Batua Project, the Notebook-making Project, and the Rubaroo Art and Craft project are few of the main projects undergoing under the skill development initiative of Kat-Katha.
But as much as the Didis and their children have to learn, they have to unlearn much, much more. Extensive counselling is part of the offer. To learn to think of yourself as a valued member of the community, of society, rather than a product that is bought and sold – that takes some mind shift.
Kat-Katha’s long-term goal is to liberate 4000 families trapped on GB Road and to influence policy that impacts sex worker across the country. Eight years down the road, it has made huge inroads into earning the trust and respect from all stakeholders: police, government, the Kotha maliks (brothel owners), and the Didis themselves. It’s gradually persuading more and more organisations to venture down to GB Road and bring their particular expertise with them.
The work Kat-Katha is doing on the ground has won the organisation a bevvy of national and international awards but very little by way of anchor funding. They rely almost solely on crowdfunding, small donations from individuals that add up.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, those who cannot go back to their villages because of travel restrictions are sewing masks to meet orders from industry and government. As part of their immediate response programme, Kat-Katha is providing medicine, basic sanitary supplies, and masks to the women who no longer have any money coming in. Sex in GB Road has fallen victim to the pandemic. No sex, no money. No money, no food. No food, no life. Theirs is a stark reality.
Why, though, am I writing about Kat-Katha?
I just got off the phone with Anurag Garg in Delhi. He’s in charge of fundraising for the organisation. We were introduced by the lovely Roshni Mallik (ex-Budapest fame). I’d been chatting with Roshni about the volunteer work she was doing with kids in Delhi when Kat-Katha came up in conversation. This week, too, I ran my first online communications workshop and used Obama’s 2004 Keynote Speech at the Democratic Convention, the one that made him famous, to illustrate the power of rhetoric. In it, he talks about the belief that we are connected as one people:
If there’s a child on the south side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child. If there’s a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for her prescription and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandmother. If there’s an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties. It’s that fundamental belief — I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sisters’ keeper — that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family. “E pluribus unum.” Out of many, one.
No matter what you think of his politics, or where in the world you live, what he says make so much sense. Privilege is very much in focus. Even before the tragic death of George Floyd, social media was awash with pieces on how while we may all be riding out the same storm (COVID-19), we’re not all in the same boat. Some are far better off than others.
The combination of a conversation with Roshni, my 38th time hearing the Obama speech, and the seemingly relentless conversation that’s going on about privilege resulted in my donating to this cause. Money I would have spent on a sailing holiday in Greece is now winging itself to Delhi to be used by Kat-Katha to help the Didis and their kids. I’m conscious of the controversy that surrounded donations to Notre Dame in the aftermath of the fire and the tide of public opinion that wanted donors to give their millions to what they thought were worthier causes. It’s far from millions I’m sending but every little helps. My money, my choice. If your financial circumstances have remained unchanged by the pandemic, why not share some of your good fortune, be it with Kat-Katha or some other organisation that relies on individual donations to do what they do best: listen first and then do what they can, where they can, when they can.
Their goal is to raise 7.5 million rupees in the next 50 days, a little shy of €90k. You can donate here.
Notes: * Numbers vary. I’ve seen as many as 100 talked about. K-K works with those they can get access to. | ** I’ve read other figures as high as 15 million.