How Covid-19 caged the victims of sex trade

Shefali Saxena Monday 20th December 2021 05:57 EST

Gitanjali Babbar is the Founder and Executive Director of Kat-Katha, a non-profit that has been shaped by experienced, passionate and professional changemakers. Today, the organisation holds the confidence of many, both inside and outside of the community and stands synonymous with love, trust and diversity to end the forced sex trade.


Gitanjali has been accredited with the Global Fellowship by Youth Action Net along with 20 outstanding young leaders from 18 countries. Gitanjali is also a TEDx Speaker with having spoken at the  TEDxGBU and TEDx Hindu College about initiating the change in the life of sex workers. A postgraduate from MCRC, Jamia Millia Islamia University (PG Diploma in Developmental Communication), she has worked with FHI, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as a Consultant and National Aids Control Organisation as a Program Officer.


In an exclusive Q&A with Asian Voice, Gitanjali Babbar spoke about the lives of sex workers during the pandemic. 


Q - How has Kat-Katha survived the pandemic? What were the challenges that you came across?

The pandemic was a deeply uncertain time for everyone across the globe and for Kat-Kathathe biggest challenge was to not just offer short-term relief to the community, but build resilience in the community for the long term damage that the pandemic would cause. Our work cannot happen completely online and we need to be on the ground with the community, so during the lockdown, this mobility was hampered and the safety of everyone was also a concern for us since red-light areas were potential super-spreaders of the virus. Kat-Katha could only survive the pandemic through the active contribution of sensitised well-wishers and the cooperation of the state authorities that allowed us to continue with our relief efforts. 


Q - While unemployment has risen significantly, where do the sex workers stand when it comes to a life-threatening disease like Covid, which may be here for a while?

Sex workers earn on a client-to-client basis. In some cases, even this income is not paid to them directly and the brothel owners and pimps get a massive cut. Some women only get paid for food and shelter and nothing more. With the pandemic and the lockdown, the number of clients that would visit GB Road has drastically reduced, leading to a major dip in income. The paying capacity of the client has also reduced due to the overall economic crisis, leading to lower rates and higher exploitation. Their work is dependent on heavy bodily contact which puts them further at risk.


Q - Were you able to help them with funding and maintaining their mental health while many of them may have not earned anything for a living in the past 18-20 months?

It’s not been easy. These women carry severe trauma and have lived extremely violent lives with rampant abuse. Our efforts are to create a sense of community where the women can come together in sisterhood and support each other. Women who took steps to invest in skill-building and alternative livelihood became the inspiration for others and they continued to motivate each other during the lockdown. Our team also held listening sessions with women to hold them gently through distress and to reassure them that we are with them through all ups and downs. For formal intervention, Kat-Katha has partnered with Neev, a team of mental health professionals, to offer psychological and psychiatric support to the women. 



Q - How challenging is it to find donations, support and resource material to carry on Kat-Kathain such times?

What we do is subtle work that takes a long time to show any impact. Our work is not short-term. It is not tangible. It does not deal with numbers. This makes it extremely challenging to get support via donations or otherwise. Most donors or other institutions require a certain scale of work or require visible outputs in a shorter time frame. It takes years to work deeply with one woman and support her transformation and build that sense of freedom and choice within her. Only donors that are sensitive to the context of GB Road, the violence and power structures there, are able to understand the cause and wholly stand by us in trying times.



Q - How many people have you helped so far?

There are around a thousand women and over a hundred children at GB Road. Besides that, there are various other parts of the ecosystem like the male servants at these brothels, the male partners living at the brothels, the pimps and the owners etc. The extended families of these women were also supported in several instances. Kat-Kathaworks with the entire ecosystem and has reached out to support all the members of the GB Road community directly during our pandemic relief efforts. 


Q- What is it that we as laymen and NRIs do not know about the lives of sex workers which is eye-opening and needs immediate intervention?

Most women who work as sex workers are trafficked at a very young age and are forced into the trade. Their young bodies take a major toll due to it that can have lifelong consequences. Most women at GB Road have multiple abortions, often in an informal unsafe environment without any doctor's medical supervision. Women here also are forcefully impregnated at young ages to trap them in the brothel and prevent them from running away. Their lifestyle in the brothel lacks a basic diet or even exposure to fresh air and sunlight. Women start ageing faster and experience various orthopaedic problems and nutritional deficiencies along with being at risk for gynaecological ailments. 

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