Arming sex workers with livelihood skills

The HeARTshala’s training programme elicits hope among the sex workers of GB Road who have been struggling to survive during lockdown, reports Nibedita Saha

If I learn this skill-based work then I’ll leave that work. I will totally leave the work,” said one of the sex workers who is in her 40s.

Nearly home to more than 1,200 sex workers, New Delhi’s infamous G. B Road, one of India’s biggest red-light areas, is among the most affected place due to Coronavirus outbreak.

A stretch of more than one kilometer from Ajmeri Gate to Lahori Gate mostly has two-three storey building with shops on the ground floor. As many as 100 brothels run among these buildings.

With the pandemic gripping the society, the brothels stopped receiving footfalls since after the announcement of nation-wide lockdown on 24 March. As the usual way of income has stopped for them, the sex workers of G. B. Road are struggling for livelihood from the past three months.

Sabita (name changed on request) has joined a tailoring training programme called HeARTshala organised by Kat-Katha NGO. She has been coming for the training programme from the past one month in a hope to learn something new. She said, “I have completed my training of making cloth masks. I make 15-20 masks per day. Though I come a little late around 12 in the afternoon but I stay back till 6 in the evening.”

HeARTshala is a tailoring workshop/programme, where the sex workers are trained in stitching all kind of outfits, starting with making cloth masks as this is in demand now.

Kat-Katha, a non-profit organisation which is working with the sex workers of G.B. Road for many initiatives starting from establishing a bridge school for the kids coming from the brothels to their new initiative to provide an alternative career option to the sex workers — has given them hope.

Kat-katha is running the training programme on G.B. Road; earlier the place was used for the activity centre (closed due to Covid lockdown) providing supplemental education and extra-curricular exposure to the local kids, mostly
living in the brothels.

“Through this professional stitching training, I have learned to stitch different outfits alongside making cloth masks. I will continue the stitching work in the future,” added Sabita.

Given the nature of their job, even the Covid-19 is gone, the impact of the pandemic will remain for a long time and they will be fighting for livelihood. In a scenario like this, an alternative option of making money through stitching has given them hope.

As reported by PTI, “60 per cent of sex workers in New Delhi return home due to loss of livelihood amid Covid lockdown that pushed many of them to the brink of starvation”.

As shared by the Kat-katha, in an assessment survey conducted for 600+ women, 70 per cent of women on GB Road wanted to enroll in alternative livelihoods at the moment as their usual economic activities slow down.

Seema (name changed on request), who has been living in G.B. Road from the past twelve years shared her experience of joining the training programme, said, “I know Geetanjali (referring to Gitanjali Babbar, Kat-Katha’s founder) from past five years. She asked me to join this training as it is a skill-based work. I joined the programme three days back. Stitching is something, which you learn once and can make earning out of it for the rest of your life.”

Adding that if she learns this stitching properly then she’ll leave her former work, “I will totally leave the work,” she said.

Most of the population in G.B. road is trafficked and it almost impossible for them to return to mainstream work due to lack of employable skills, illiteracy and responsibility of children and family. Over the years, they end up becoming pimps/managers/brothel owners to survive. Their lives become a web of generational sex work, reinforced by poverty, customs, and institutions

With an aim to provide an opportunity to break the age-old web of generational sex work, Kat-katha has managed to enroll as many as nine women and looking forward to increasing the number.

Shruti, Kat-katha’s volunteer, who is closely supervising HeARTshala spoke about the challenges of the initiative. She said, “Convincing them is a very difficult part as many of the women are facing a lot of problems in terms of learning the skill, which is completely new for them. I go to talk to the women to join us and slowly it is happening. We have enrolled nine women till now who have started the production of cloth masks from 27 May. More five women are supposed to join us very soon.”

Shruti also informed that Kat-katha has collaborated with Goonj, an NGO for selling the masks produced by HeARTshala workshop. “Goonj is buying most of our masks; they further distribute the masks to those in need,” she added.

The hurdle for the women of G.B. road is not only learning a new skill but also coming out of the brothels to do something different from usual as many times the owners do not allow them to go outside.

“One of our trainees left the programme because her brothel owners did not allow her to come. So we are also trying to get a new place for the women, who all want to continue the stitching work so that they don’t have to worry for a place to live. Our objective is to create a safe space for women to learn and earn and to express themselves freely,” said Shruti.

HeARTshala has become a kind of hope for these women as they are looking forward to leave their traditional ways of living and foresees a better future.

Another woman from HeARTshala, who also monitors the programme talked about the positives impact of the programme among the participating women. She said, “All our work is off because of the lockdown; so we started this new work of making cloth masks to make some money. There are a few women who haven’t used stitching machines before, so it is also a challenge for them. It’s been only a month but they have learned a lot.”

“One of our women went home in Andhra Pradesh after leaning stitching here. She brought a machine on her own money and took to her home, where she is doing stitching work to earn money,” she added.

Stitching being a skill-based work, the women are hopeful that once they master the skill properly, they will only continue this leaving everything behind.

“I am enjoying the training programme a lot as because of this I am learning a new skill and making new designs every day. We have also received rice, cooking gas and financial support from Kat-katha which is a great help for us. Now we are having this training, once we learn it I would leave that job and continue this. I want that as many as women can come here and learn the skill to progress in their life,” shared a trainee from HeARTshala.