Bina’s Dilemma

The story of Bina’s early life is common to many young girls from rural India. She lived in a small village in Haryana with her mother, brother and two sisters. Her father died of a sudden heart attack ten years ago. She was just 14 years old when the family was faced with a mountain of debt and no source of income. The family went through a financial crisis and Bina – as the eldest – felt unable to help in any way. Yet she couldn’t bear to see her family suffer. At times, they could hardly have a square meal a day and often went to bed hungry.

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Image. 1 The rooms in GB Road, New Delhi, India

One day a villager approached the family and said that he was going to Delhi in search of a job and Bina could come with him. But instead of a job, Bina ended up in Delhi’s red-light district, GB Road, where she still lives and works in the sex trade. She is now 23 years old and doesn’t have any skills, doesn’t know of any other trade apart than the one which operates from dingy alleys and stench-filled dark rooms of GB Road. Bina is one of those who comes to the red-light area to meet her clients but doesn’t live there.

Sandhya’s Narration

For many years now, Bina has been sending money back to her village, her brother and sisters have been educated, the money she earned has helped with her mother’s treatment. Last year, Bina fell very ill. As a frontline worker who accompanies the BUDS Medical Health Van (MHV), I got to know of Bina’s condition through another sex worker who had come for treatment. I asked her to bring Bina to the MHV, and after a lot of persuasion, Bina finally came for treatment. When I first saw her Bina struck me as being very sad and extremely weak. Dr. Monica diagnosed her as having a Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI) indicated by white discharge. She was also very withdrawn and refused to speak to any of us, apart from the doctor. Realizing that she needed help, I tried to communicate with her. I asked her whether she had any friends whether among the other sex workers or outside of her profession? And what other problems did she have, especially since during lockdown, many had lost their jobs? Gradually, as I met her every week, her story emerged, through phone conversations and meetings whenever I went to that area with the MHV. Bina cried bitterly when she told me about her early life and wanted to go home, but the shame and fear of being ostracized by her family and community – along with the fear that her sole source of income would stop – were huge deterrents.

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Image 2 Normally a crowded market, the GB road area is deserted look during the lockdown in Delhi

Effects of the Pandemic

Delhi has had two successive (partial) lockdowns since April, wherein essential services were operational but all shops, malls, entertainment centres, schools and institutions were shut. This has resulted in income losses in the informal sector. Since they live from day-to-day earnings, the money to buy food, medicines and essential supplies dwindled. Bina’s situation was dire – since the entire area from where she got her clients was in a lockdown mode and she couldn’t send money home. In fact, she could hardly cater to her own basic needs. Her situation was made worse by the fact that neither her family nor her landlord knows of her real profession, she told them that she worked as a salesperson in a small company. She now also owes a month’s rent, which has to be paid next month. With the loss of clientele, Bina does not know how she will pay rent.

BUDS helped Bina by giving her rations, masks and sanitizers as part of an intervention that twinned provision of medical and preventive care. This was part of BUDS response to the second wave of COVID-19 that Delhi is currently experiencing. Over 150 sex workers benefited from this drive.

The Dilemma

Bina’s situation is not unique. There are sex workers across India who do not have steady incomes, no skills, live in cramped unhygienic conditions, suffer from sexually transmitted infections (including HIV). When the brothels closed due to the lockdown, no one was responsible for these women. Pimps and madams alike told them to fend for themselves.

Bina now faces a dilemma – she will have work once the lockdown lifts – but she will also be at risk of infection from COVID-19. And should she fall ill, there is no one she can turn to.

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Image 3 GB Road- the ‘red-light’ area of Delhi